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Why the FAA's drone rules should never get off the ground

Mike Elgan | Dec. 2, 2014
The Federal Aviation Administration's expected drone rules will hold back innovation in the U.S.

amazon prime air drone
Amazon is exploring the use of drones for package delivery. Credit:

It's hard to believe, but it's illegal to fly a drone in the U.S. for commercial purposes.

The reason is that national authorities have been dragging their feet for years to establish rules for flying machines that are essentially expensive remote-control toy quadracopters.

It looks like at long last the feds will act. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to begin a one- or two-year process that will culminate in actual rules.

Two years is like 14 years in both dog and Silicon Valley years -- an eternity. Worse, it looks like those rules may stifle drone innovation in the U.S. indefinitely.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the FCC is considering the following drone rules:

  • Commercial drone operators must have a pilot's license
  • Daylight flying only
  • No flying above 400 feet
  • No flying within three miles of stadiums
  • Drones must remain within sight of the operator

Also, the FAA's proposal would lump all drones that are less than 55 pounds under the same set of rules. That means a tiny, light and perfectly harmless toy will be over-regulated.

Why these rules are unacceptable

First, two years is way too long to wait for rules on operating drones.

Beyond that, these rules are a wild overreach that will harm U.S. competitiveness in the drone industry.

Let's be clear: A drone is a computer. It's a robot. It's wirelessly networked technology. More importantly, it's a fledgling technology that will go in directions that cannot be predicted.

Wherever commercial drones are allowed to fly freely, there will be innovation, jobs and investment.

The FAA's backward attitude on drones is already driving innovation abroad.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously unveiled his company's intention to explore the use of drones for delivering packages. Now we've learned that the research and development of these drones has been moved abroad to a testing facility in Cambridge, UK. The company is now publishing job ads in the UK for engineers, software developers and scientists to work on the technology and innovation.

While Amazon announced its drone delivery research program about a year ago, Google set up its research and development for its Project Wing drone program in Australia about two years ago.

Drone innovation has been moved abroad because the FAA issued a blanket ban in place of stepping up and establishing fair rules. Now innovators face up to two more years of no rules (With the default being: No commercial flying), followed by what could be a list of rules that will slow progress and discourage drone innovation.


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