The 4 Primary Concerns About Domestic Drones

By Tom Farrier, Chair, ISASI Unmanned Aircraft Systems Working Group. Originally published on Quora.
I edited the original question simply because it contained an embedded assumption that “drone = bad.” Lots of people have lots of ingenious ideas associated with new uses for unmanned aircraft, especially at the small end of the size spectrum (officially, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration defines those as weighing less than 55 pounds).

However, four basic types of concerns are being raised, each of which is valid and requires conscious addressal before everybody jumps on the drone bandwagon:

  • Safety — Drones in general do not play well with other aircraft. The most straightforward reason for this is that they can’t see where they’re going. Their answer to this often is along the lines of, “Stay out of our way.” Easier said than done, and besides, the manned aircraft rejoinder usually is, “We were here first.” There’s a lot of figuring-out to be done to deal with these and related issues (package delivery services will need to be able to make sure they don’t land on innocent bystanders, etc.). Don’t let people wave these kinds of concerns aside — they’re real, and they’re contentious, and the idiots on Capitol Hill didn’t make them any easier by declaring in public law that the FAA can’t regulate small unmanned aircraft identical to those used by businesses if they’re being flown for “hobby or recreational purposes.”
  • Security — The less said about this, the better. Sure, somebody could build flying bombs, although conventional explosives are heavy and high explosives aren’t easily obtained. An equally large threat is using an eye in the sky to facilitate other bad activities. This possibility is getting a significant amount of attention. Add to this the fact that “hobby and recreational” flyers have been known to have their heads up their backsides with respect to where they should and shouldn’t be while flying, so it’s often hard to determine exactly why a given drone might be in a given location. While private citizens shooting down annoying drones is frowned upon (or outright illegal, depending on the circumstances), maybe getting a few $1,000 drones and Go-Pros officially — and justifiably — blown out of the sky where they’re in sensitive areas might help the offenders get the message.
  • Privacy — This one came out of the blue shortly after the “FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012” started opening the floodgates. Personally, I love it being raised simply because it points to why legislators shouldn’t try to make rules. In a nutshell, there are two sets of “privacy” objections: (1) Big Brother is Watching, which is kind of narcissistic from some angles and kind of obtuse from others… there are only so many Watchers, and most people aren’t doing anything worth Watching in the first place; and (2) My Neighbor is Looking in My Window, which the Federal government can’t do anything about once they’ve said that looking in somebody’s window could be construed as a “hobby” and can’t be regulated against.
  • Public Nuisance — This is the one that I foresee becoming the most problematic, simply because it provides a path for lumping the first three together under the lens of “community impact.” Cities can’t write ordinances prohibiting the flight of drones, except where they can based on noise, hazard, or other somewhat legally gray objections.

In the next few years I expect to see hundreds, if not thousands of aggrieved hobbyists demanding their right to fly their noisy, intrusive toys wherever they want because Congress said they can and their lobbyists will fight to defend their right to do so. Balderdash. Where drone flying adversely affects somebody else, the drone operators have no such “rights” — “Your right to swing your arm stops at my nose,” etc.

The public skies are just like the public airwaves. Amateur (“ham”) radio operators have to be licensed to broadcast because of the possible adverse effects they can have on others while making use of a public resource. Drone flyers can have the same effects, and should have no right simply to fly at will. Instead, many of them assert comprehensive rights, and fight for (and celebrate) their total lack of accountability. (For example, a really good summary of the reason why the FAA was ordered to stop registering “hobby and recreational” drones is at Court Ruling: The FAA Can’t Make You Register Your Drone.)

In the first two cases above, the key to addressing the concerns is mitigation of the safety and security threats posed by drones, that is, making sure protections against them have been satisfactorily provided for. The third and the fourth, candidly, require maturity and self-discipline that are asserted to be universal by drone advocates but that routinely are proven lacking by morons with a few hundred bucks to spend.

The genie is out of the bottle; the barn door is a’ swingin’ as the horse gallops down the street. Drones are here to stay. Their continued misuse — or escalations in the impact of their misuse — will be the only way a path will be found and a balance struck between legitimate concerns and oblivious operators.

By Tom Farrier, Chair, ISASI Unmanned Aircraft Systems Working Group. Originally published on Quora.
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