When a 2-pound drone crashed on the White House lawn in January, the nation was thrown into drone hysteria.
That drone was a $1,000 model made by Chinese technology company DJI, but a basic camera-equipped drone can be had for $40—a fact not lost on those who pontificated about the crash. “It’s pretty worrisome if you’re in the Secret Service, you’re in law enforcement, a drone comes in and you don’t know if this is some 14-year-old kid who got a drone or if this is some al Qaeda sympathizer wanting to send a message,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said at the time.
The White House drone belonged not to a 14-year-old or terrorist, but to an off-duty government employee who reported the mishap to the Secret Service. The incident nevertheless illuminates the confusion that exists about drone laws—and how little the government has done to clarify it.
Some say the government should leave well enough alone, allowing drone-makers and operators to innovate. Others think a coming boom in consumer robotics technology — whether drones, driverless cars, or other devices yet to come—needs a comprehensive government response and, perhaps, even a “NASA for robots.”
“People thought they knew how [aviation] was regulated,” said MIT professor David Mindell, whose upcoming book “Our Robots, Ourselves” explores robots ranging from drones to Mars rovers. “Drones have thrown a monkey wrench into that.”
The drone industry takes flight
President Obama, who wasn’t home during the White House crash, acknowledged issues with drone regulation after the incident: “I’ve actually asked the Federal Aviation Administration and a number of agencies to examine how we are managing this new technology, because the drone that landed in the White House, you buy in RadioShack,” he said.
Drone purchases have taken off at places ranging from Amazon to the Apple Store. 3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson estimated in 2014 that half a million drones have been sold in the U.S. alone.
But while hobby use of drones is legal (with a few exceptions, such as flying in restricted airspace), the FAA has banned commercial drones. That means any 14-year-old can fly a drone, but any business cannot.
Businesses wanting to fly drones—from a local farmer to Amazon AMZN, +0.32% or Google GOOG, -0.32% —must apply to the FAA for a “certificate of exemption, ” a process businesses call needlessly complex. (One requirement is that the operator be a licensed airplane pilot.)
Congress asked the FAA to come up with rules governing commercial drone use in 2012, setting a Sept. 30, 2015, deadline. But the FAA will likely miss that mark: DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel III said in 2014 that the FAA is “significantly behind schedule.” In an email, an FAA spokeswoman declined to say whether it would meet the deadline.
“We are working to finish our part of the rule-making by the end of this calendar year,” the spokeswoman wrote. “The FAA is committed to the safe integration of drones. Our first priority is the safety of people on airplanes and on the ground first while allowing safe, expanded use of drones.”
The FAA’s position is that “it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow with the Technology Policy Program at George Mason University. But that, he says, is hampering innovation in the field.
“The entire mission of the FAA is to be highly precautionary and protective of airspace because they’re afraid of an accident,” said Thierer. “But there might be technologies not able to be tested that can solve those accidents.”
Driverless cars have followed a different path
Between White House drone crashes, misunderstandings of the practical purposes of drones, and fears that drones will spy on people, flying robots suffer from an image problem. But driving robots have been mostly welcomed or, at least, accepted as inevitable—both by the public and the agencies that regulate the cars—even though they’re not consumer-ready.
Departments of Motor Vehicles in several states and Washington, D.C., have laws that regulate operational permits for companies. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has essentially given the all-clear: Any car that has met NHTSA vehicle safety regulations and made it to market is still legal after being made driverless.
In the absence of federal laws, companies wanting to operate driverless cars in states where DMVs haven’t established rules just go ahead and do it. Google, for instance, runs driverless car tests in Texas, which doesn’t have regulations directed at them.