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Droning on and on in the US


via Flickr © Gabriel GM (CC BY 2.0)

In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration is considering the implementation of a new regime that will regulate flights by small drones. Simultaneously, the Obama administration has issued a presidential decree requiring US federal authorities to make public detailed records of where agencies fly drones and what happens to the huge amounts of data that are being collected by aerial surveillance.

It is the first time that both national regulatory agencies and the White House have acted to formulate a basic and coherent framework to control the ever-escalating incidence of drone flights in the US. It is hoped the new initiatives will lay down some hard and fast rules over exactly who may operate and manage drone flights, the conditions under which they will be permitted to take place, the implementation of safety regulations and some oversight and policing of what, currently and in too many cases, are unrestrained and unrestricted examples of (literally) over-the-top governmental surveillance of the population.

As they stand, the FAA’s draft rules allow some drone applications (such as those undertaken by real estate agents, aerial photographers, police departments, farmers and others flying drones for commercial, security or administrative purposes) to be empowered quickly to do so. All that would be required will be for drone operators to pass a written (rather than practical flying) test, register their drones and stump up about US$250 in administrative fees. There is no requirement top prove proficiency and safety in flying the drones and operators would not need a pilot's licence.

If the light-touch. laissez-faire approach is implemented crashes, accidents, downed civilian aircraft, loss of life, broken limbs, lopped appendages, mis-delivered products and general mayhem will surely follow - as will court cases and massive claims for compensation. But hey, it's progress folks.

In fact the FAA has been looking piecemeal at the control and regulation of drones for several years now but legally mandated provisions to allow public objections and reviews are expected to put back the codification of drone regulation until at least 2017. According to the FAA's own estimates, once the regulations are in place some 7,000 US businesses will apply for permits to operate drone services within three years.

See Part II of 'Droning on and on in the US'

Regulation with no teeth and almost no sanction

However, other proposed drone regulations would be more stringent and would impose severe limitations on the technologies and services. For example, commercial companies will be allowed to operate drone services only during daylight hours and drones would have to remain in line-of-sight of the operator itself and operator observers posted at various ground points along the route can physically see that the flight is progressing as planned and as it should. So, we can expect a lot of drone operations to fly from facilities atop hills and high buildings.

Other proposed regulations are that drones will not be permitted to travel at more than 100 miles per hour and only below an altitude ceiling of 500 feet. Additionally, drones will be prohibited from over-flying bystanders, crowds and the public not directly involved in drone operations. Ludicrous, unenforceable and a disaster waiting to happen.

Furthermore, drones will not be sanctioned to fly over "long distances". There is as yet no definition of what constitutes a long-distance drone flight but it is thought that early iterations of legislation will kibosh some of the more ambitious schemes, dreamed up by the likes of Amazon, to deliver goods directly to a customer's front door, or more likely, dump an item into a neighbour's swimming pool.

The FAA could also be making itself a hostage to fortune and lawsuits as current proposals do not require either drone manufacturers or operators to certify that the drones weighing less than 55 pounds are safe to fly. This is because, as the FAA puts it, "small drones pose the least amount of risk in our airspace." Tell that to an enraged litigant who has just been scalped by a falling drone.

Then there is another legislative category for so-called "micro- drones" that weigh 4.4 pounds or less. Operators of these devices will be subject to no oversight or control whatsoever provided they supply the FAA with as written declaration to the effect that they are "familiar with basic aviation safety measures." 'Now then, which is port and which is starboard again? I think I have precedence and right of way to fly across the flight path of that Airbus A380 defending on finals in to LAX.'

And, of course, none of the FAA's proposals apply to drones flown by private individuals for "recreational purposes." At the moment recreational drone flights are regulation free provided they take place below 400 feet and at least five miles from an airport. However, as any examination of US news media shows, these guidelines are routinely ignored and pilots across the nation are reporting ever-more near-collisions with small unlicensed drones.

The FAA says "We will take appropriate enforcement action against anyone who is flying [a drone] in a careless or reckless manner sufficient to endanger the public or other users of the airspace." The enforcement available is minimal fine.

So, will it actually take some buffoon to bring down a commercial airliner over a city or an airport before drones are properly regulated? The answer is yes, probably, not least because the regulator is already on public record admitting that it is all but impossible to control the burgeoning availability and use of drones. Most of the devices are too small to be picked up on radar and even when they have caused near-misses over airports or in congested flying space the authorities can't chase them away, bring them down or even pinpoint the physical location of miscreants piloting drones by remote control.

Meanwhile, other federal agencies will have hence forth to disclose to the FAA exactly where and when that have been conducting drone operations within the US and to make public their policies for storing, manipulating and securing personal data collected via drone missions.

AS for the private sector the White House has told the US Commerce Department to "work closely" with private enterprises to develop a "voluntary code of conduct" to guarantee data protection and the privacy of citizens. Yeah, that'll work.

Part 2 of this feature follows.

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