A Takeoff Window for Drones

By Mar 28, 2014, 7:50 AM Author's Blog  

A Takeoff Window for Drones

A sudden thaw in the regulatory climate has given at least some U.S. operators of drone aircraft clearance to fly, but there may be more clouds creeping over the horizon. Here’s hoping the storm passes without grounding drones once again.

Drones got their unexpected boost when Patrick Geraghty, an administrative law judge for the National Transportation Safety Board, wrote that “There was no enforceable FAA rule” in place to support the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to fine drone pilot Raphael Pirker for unauthorized flying. Pirker, 29, is an entrepreneur and photographer who used a small Styrofoam unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to create promotional images for the University of Virginia. The FAA charged him with operating a UAV for commercial purposes without a license and with flying recklessly close to pedestrians, buildings, and cars in a tunnel. The fine was set at $10,000.

Pirker objected to the fine, saying the FAA’s stance on a craft the size of the one he used was irrational. He did not, however, argue that the FAA shouldn’t regulate such devices at all; on the contrary, he told The Wall Street Journal, “One can clearly understand the FAA’s point of view that they want to regulate this.” Instead, he explained, he is against outright bans that make no distinction for a craft’s size and weight.

For now, Geraghty’s decision has opened the door to commercial use of drones, formerly banned in this country under most circumstances. The ruling authorizes for-profit flights of at least some model aircraft, though exactly how large those aircraft can be does not seem to be clear.

That ruling is unlikely to stand unchallenged. The FAA is appealing the National Transportation Safety Board’s decision, NBC News reported, and it seems probable that this incident will trigger a re-evaluation of current standards and, most likely, adoption of a new and presumably binding set of rules.

In the aviation world, private pilots (technically including me, though I have not actually flown in five years) cannot be paid to fly. For that, a pilot must hold a commercial pilot’s license, which requires adherence to stricter standards and more rigorous testing. The FAA’s action against Pirker implies that has it extended that mindset into the world of model aircraft and UAVs.

All thoughtful people should, like Pirker himself, support some restrictions. We would not want a total absence of regulation of UAVs. The sky is a dangerous place. So is the ground, for that matter, if things swoop or tumble out of the heavens unexpectedly.

But we shouldn’t have regulations so severe that they impede the valuable use, public and private, hobbyist and commercial, of unmanned aircraft.

The population of private pilots continues to drop steadily. Though anyone who appreciates aviation, as I do, would want to see more people encouraged to fly manned aircraft, the fact is that it is an expensive, time-consuming and relatively inflexible way to travel. Sure, you can fly to a lot more places than via commercial flight and do it on your own schedule. But in most aircraft, your speeds will be much lower, your range much more limited, and your schedule much more sensitive to weather disruption than when traveling in commercial or private jets, usually flown by professional pilots. General aviation is of only limited use for most of us as a means of transportation.

But there are many things you can do with a light unmanned aircraft, such as photographing real estate, observing wildlife populations and monitoring timber, livestock and other assets. In law enforcement and search and rescue, the uses are varied and apparent, as I discussed in this space a few years ago. We certainly want regulation in place to keep UAV use within safe parameters, but that doesn’t mean we want to regulate them into no use at all – not when they offer so many advantages and potential applications that can’t be easily duplicated by other means.

The FAA should get into the business of making these benefits available to Americans, not keeping them away from us. I hope the fallout of the recent decision leads to regulations that are smart rather than stifling.

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