Whenever someone approaches me as I’m flying a drone, the first thing they ask is, “so, are you trying to spy on someone?”
And every time, my answer is no. Unlike your surprisingly stealthy iPhone camera, drones are too large to not see. They’re also too loud to not hear. Have you heard one? They sound like a pack of bees.
“New innovation is often feared, because innovation challenges the status quo,” said Lisa Ellman, who formerly led the Justice Department’s working group on domestic use of drones and who is counsel at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.
2014 is the year America was struck by ‘Drone Fever’: we have a rapidly growing group of creative engineers, artists, scientists and businesspeople who want to use drones to make their work smarter and more efficient. Then we have a vocal group of people who protest drones over privacy concerns. And we have policy makers, who are trying, and failing, to sort it all out.
The responsibility of responding to privacy concerns has, by default, fallen on the Federal Aviation Administration, the group tasked with issuing regulations as to how commercial drones could operate in the U.S.
But the already bureaucratic FAA doesn’t have the expertise to solve privacy concerns, and has historically only been involved in the safety side of aviation.
”The FAA has no jurisdiction or inclination to worry about privacy,” Ellman said.
Because of so much outcry over privacy, the FAA has implemented legislation that has been flawed and outdated. Commercial use of drones is completely banned, unless you file for a Section 333 petition with the Federal Aviation Administration, which usually takes a neither speedy, nor efficient, 120-days to process from the time you file to when it’s approved.
Translation: the government makes it really hard to legally make money off flying your drone.
That’s a problem for people like me and the thousands of other Americans who own a drone (or will get one for Christmas this year) and want to use it to take pictures, or for real estate agents who want to show off large parcels of land, or for farmers who want to survey their crops. Japan has been using drones for crop-dusting since 1987.
For a country that places so much value on innovation, why does the U.S. allow policy that clearly impedes it?
Drones certainly bring privacy issues. One real estate agent used pictures taken by a drone to market a property without realizing they included images of a neighbor sunbathing, topless, in her backyard.
And celebrities worry that paparazzi will use drones to sneak photographs.
“Drone Pap wtf,” Miley Cyrus once posted on her Instagram.
But those privacy concerns apply just as much to someone with a telephoto lens, satellite views such as Google Earth, or a camera on a helicopter.
“There’s enough framework that already exists in government, enough of a framework to legally protect yourself,” said Gretchen West, former executive vice president of drone lobby group AUVSI. “‘Peeping Tom’ laws exist already.
Instead of solving the safety concerns that come with drones, such as addressing technical failures or sorting out flight patterns when multiple drones are flying in the same region, the FAA is wrapped in a box of trying to fix all the world’s drone worries.
In doing that, the FAA keeps messing up.
In the latest ruling in the Huerta v. Pirker case, the National Transportation Safety Board reversed a judge’s ruling against the FAA that drone operator Raphael Pirker shouldn’t have to pay a fine for reckless flying.
It seems to be an issue of word choice. Ellman says there is an unclear differentiation between what’s “prohibited” vs what’s “unregulated.”
The FAA has wanted to require drone operators to have a pilot’s license, a time-consuming and expensive process.
“There is a general community concern that requiring a pilot’s license to fly a drone is a bit excessive,” said Helen Greiner, chief executive of CyPhy Works Inc. and co-founder of iRobot. “Requiring a pilot’s license for drone operators does not make sense. Flying a plane is not like flying a drone.”
She said that drone operators would benefit from the ground-school classes that teaches about airspace.
“But we can now program this knowledge into the drones…which is better than depending on a pilot to look it up for each flight.”
She also said that the FAA’s requirement that drones operate only during the day is also a bit short-sighted.