Why the FAA Stands in the Way of Drone Innovation

The purpose of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is to protect the American people, and this is what the agency sought to do when banning all commercial use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), or drones, in 2007. Unfortunately, this errant act of policy-making has not insured the safety of Americans, but rather hindered innovation and cast a negative image over drones. The implications of this broad, imprecise action must be reevaluated. The FAA’s policy must be changed in order to promote free and fair development of a promising new technology.

When most people think of drones, they think either of a heartless killing machine in Pakistan, or a frivolous trinket with which to deliver tacos. Because of the FAA’s ban on commercial drone use, few realize the potential applications of UASs in peaceful, practical situations. Farmers have pioneered use of UASs to survey hundreds of thousands of acres of crops, using infrared cameras to determine which plants are in need of water, developing more sustainable farming practices. Because of the FAA’s policy, this practice is considered illegal. Engineers seek to use drones to survey thousands of miles of remote pipeline, inspecting for safety in a faster and more economical method than sending an employee to visually examine the entire length. This application could prevent oil spills and promote safety, but because of FAA regulations companies find themselves unable to do so. Innovation with drones is a growing field, and one sure to have lasting impacts on future generations. As Alyssa Dolan and Richard Thompson write in their Congressional Research Service report Integration of Drones into Domestic Airspace: Selected Legal Issues, “the extent of their potential domestic application is only bound by human ingenuity.” Drones could be a huge boon to a variety of American businesses, but FAA regulations must be curtailed in order to unlock this potential.

In the Air Commerce Act of 1926, the precursor agency to the FAA was given the right to “make and enforce safety regulations.”  According to Michael Berry and Nabiha Syed of the Washington Post, the FAA was created in 1958 and tasked with “develop[ing] plans and policy for the use of the navigable airspace and assign by regulation or order the use of the airspace necessary to ensure the safety of aircraft and the efficient use of airspace.”This is the authority the FAA used to restrict UAS flight, in the interests of protecting citizens and keeping the skies safe. In Pirker v. Huerta this regulation was struck down in Federal court, and a judge ruled that the FAA had no “explicit legal authority to prohibit such use of a commercial hobbyist airplane.” According to Kelsey D. Atherton writing for Popular Science Magazine. According to the ruling, the FAA has permitted model airplane enthusiasts to fly their crafts since the mid 20th century, and until the FAA issues a formal legal distinction between “hobbyist airplanes” and “unmanned aerial systems,” the agency cannot ban the commercial use of drones. The ban on commercial drone use is not only harmful, but unlawful.

If the ban on commercial drone use was completely struck down, many would still have concerns over drones and privacy issues. Privacy issues are certainly contentious when it comes to drone use, and one of the primary reasons the FAA put their regulations into place. The thought of a mobile camera looking into one’s personal life is disconcerting, and privacy rights ought to always be protected. There is, however, a way to preserve these rights while continuing to promote innovation with drones. Most commercial applications of drones involve no infringement upon the privacy of individuals, but rather are used by a company within their property or to survey public lands. If the FAA were to issue easily-granted permits to companies for drone activity, the agency would be able to prevent most unlawful spying while simultaneously allowing free and fair use of drones. The farmer who seeks to monitor his crops with a drone could apply for and obtain a permit from the FAA, while a company looking to collect infrared data from others private property would be ineligible. Through a more flexible permitting system, the FAA can accomplish its goal of protecting the privacy of Americans while still promoting innovation with drones. The FAA prohibits lawful commercial use of drones while allowing the government to use UASs to conduct unlawful searches. Instead of banning commercial use of airspace, the government should permit and monitor drone activity.

Legal change concerning new technologies can come very slowly, as public opinion gradually shifts and concerns dissipate. This will certainly be the case with drones, but the federal government and the FAA must take action to promote this growth. The FAA has the ability to kickstart a huge bloom in drone innovation, all while protecting the safety and privacy rights of Americans. The ban on commercial use of drones is illegal, hinders innovation, and could be drastically improved. If the FAA were to discard their unlawful, overly broad policy and replace it with responsible laws that protected citizens they could benefit hobbyists, farmers, and entrepreneurs alike. The FAA must adopt a system that incorporates permitting to allow the protection of privacy, while simultaneously promoting growth and development. For the benefit of all Americans, the FAA’s policy on commercial drones must be changed.