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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.

The possible rule against flying near stadiums is a good one -- or even over crowds of people everywhere. Drones should be banned near airports or anywhere else where they could threaten the safety of bystanders. But the rest? Not so much.

First, the rule against allowing people who aren't licensed pilots to fly drones is outrageous. The extensive training for pilots is geared toward cross-country flight with passengers onboard, navigating airport airspace, mastering weather charts and more. A radically simplified course for drone pilots might be reasonable, but requiring a pilot's license is an absurdly limiting barrier.

While the training behind a private pilot's license is far too extensive, it's also not extensive enough. Learning to fly a Cessna will teach you close to nothing about how to remote-control a drone.

Blanket bans on flying at night or above 400 feet or even staying within sight of the operator are unnecessary. This flying could take place in the middle of the desert or from a boat or any number of locations where there's no risk to anyone.

The fact is that strangling American drone innovation in its cradle is another example of a government agency making a host of assumptions then taking radical action that supports its own mandate at the expense of others.

It reminds me of the National Security Agency's decision to exploit U.S. technology companies to engage in mass surveillance operations. Yes, their mandate is to prevents acts of terrorism. But their extreme action is now causing material harm to the entire U.S. technology sector as international customers scramble for non-American alternatives.

Likewise, the FAA's overly cautious approach to drones is designed to maximize air safety in the short term, but who knows what its effect will be in the long term. For example, drone algorithm engineers might develop extremely safe methods for flying above 400 feet or at night if they were allowed to fail under those circumstances. A few night-time drone crashes would probably usher in methods to prevent them from ever happening. That's how technology innovation works.

Yes, of course drones could cause injuries or worse. But they'll be far safer than a thousand things that are perfectly legal. Cars, for example. Or doughnuts.

In that sense, it's another example where anything related to technology is automatically fair game for being singled out for bans, restrictions and overreaction. It's kind of like texting while driving. Focusing on a phone while behind the wheel is dangerous because it's a distraction. But it's not more distracting than any number of in-car activities that remain legal because they're not new or technology oriented.

The right way to proceed is to hold everyone liable for injuring others, regardless of whether they did it with a drone or not -- and regardless of whether they did or didn't follow whatever rules the FAA comes up with.

Those rules should be as enabling and as few as possible. Let's wait and see what the problems with drones are before we start solving them.


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