A more urgent need for new drone rules

The following editorial appeared in The Charlotte Observer on Friday, Aug. 21:

In June, a Southwest Airlines pilot looked down as he approached Love Field in Dallas to see a drone just “a few hundred feet” away.

This month, an American Airlines pilot descending toward Phoenix Sky Harbor airport got a surprise at 7,000 feet. A hobbyist’s black-and-yellow drone buzzed nearby, just 100 feet below the plane’s nose.

Just this Sunday, there were 12 incidents across the country of drones flying too close to airplanes or airports, according to The Washington Post.

The good news: All the planes involved landed safely.

The troubling news: Despite these incidents and hundreds of others, the Federal Aviation Administration continues to move slowly in adopting new drone regulations.

The popularity of the pilotless aircraft is exploding — not only for personal fun, but commercial and government use. That surge, however, has not been met with federal rules assuring that they’re used safely.

After dragging its feet, the FAA finally proposed new regulations in February. The 60-day comment period on those proposals has long passed. Next are public meetings this month and next month to discuss “innovation and opportunities.” Final regulations seem far from imminent.

Certainly, crafting a new set of rules is a delicate, difficult balancing act. Regulations need to accommodate safety and privacy concerns, but rigid restrictions might stifle the potential for drones to be a valuable tool for commerce.

Already, drones are put to a wide variety of good uses. Farmers are beginning to utilize them to check crops, and foresters are doing the same for timber. Law enforcement officials also are realizing their promise, as are media. This week, Duke Energy officials told The Charlotte Observer that the utility is testing drones for purposes like surveying power lines.

The new rules are bound to put a crimp in some of those pursuits. The FAA’s February proposals would require that drones weigh no more than 55 pounds, fly no higher than 500 feet and travel no faster than 100 mph. Drone operators would have to be at least 17 years old and certified, and drones would not be allowed to drop anything from the sky.

One proposal that’s already drawn objection: Operators would be required to always be able to see the aircraft without the aid of binoculars or cameras. For companies like Google and Amazon that are pursuing drone projects involving delivery of goods, that would be a big blow.

For now, however, that makes sense. Drones can’t sense and avoid collisions on their own. Even when operators can see them, they can’t always control them. Some are ending up in unintended places, like the White House lawn.

As drones become sophisticated and their operators more capable, we can envision rules expanding commercial use of the aircraft, so long as operators are licensed like other pilots.

First, though, the FAA has to establish a base of reasonable safety and privacy regulations — and soon — before a close call becomes a catastrophe.


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