Don’t Rush to Regulate Drones

Too hasty an approach could stifle innovation.

Drones could be the new “it” gift for the 2015 holiday shopping season, with sales expected to top 1 million this year.

Alarmed by the potential flood of drones, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has begun hastily throwing together a national drone registration plan for both hobbyist and commercial operators. The FAA and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, recently announced they would be putting together a task force that will have less than a month to make recommendations for implementing the FAA’s federal drone registry – something that is unprecedented in scope – just so the rules can be finalized in time for the holiday shopping season. Meanwhile, 45 states have considered 166 bills related to drones so far in 2015, and 26 states already have enacted laws.

To be sure, many of these laws address legitimate questions, such as how state law enforcement agencies can use the devices or if drones can be used for hunting. For example, law enforcement should be easily able to find someone who operates a drone that causes a public nuisance or damage.

But policymakers should also be careful to not create a jumble of duplicative, rushed, or ill-conceived policy responses that slow the adoption of drone technology. Rushing to enact restrictions on drones could unnecessarily curb adoption and inadvertently hinder legitimate uses of the technology to the detriment of science, the economy, and society.

For example, California’s legislature recently passed a bill that would have banned drones from flying lower than 350 feet over private property without permission. While the bill’s authors claimed it would have protected privacy for landowners, the state already had in place laws that criminalize trespassing and harassment. Instead, the bill would have greatly restricted the ability of businesses and consumers to fly drones. Luckily, Governor Jerry Brown foresaw these unintended consequences and vetoed the bill.

Similarly, North Carolina passed a law in 2014 that prohibits the use of drones to take and publish photographs of individuals without their permission. While this law would prevent neighbors from spying on each other (a practice that is already illegal in the state), it would also limit legitimate uses of drones, such as for artistic photography, real estate photography, or mapping purposes. This law ignored a long-standing legal doctrine that allows people to take pictures in public places, even of individuals without their permission.

The current rush to action by the FAA is puzzling, especially since the FAA’s overall approach to drone policymaking has otherwise been measured and inclusive. In fact, the FAA is currently going through an additional rulemaking process for small commercial drones – those weighing under 55 pounds – in which it is analyzing more than 4,500 public comments from businesses and interested parties to determine how commercial operators should be allowed to fly small drones in U.S. airspace. The process was announced in February 2015, and the FAA expects to finalize its rules by June 2016. That is more than a year of planning, not including the extended period of time it took the agency to propose the rules in the first place.

There’s no reason why the FAA can’t follow a similar process with its proposed drone registry. The FAA should move forward on its rulemakings in a deliberate manner, paying close attention to stakeholder feedback, even if a slower process does not meet the holiday deadline. When it comes to the states, rather than rush to judgment, policymakers should address concerns that have actually manifested in a prudent manner. In general, rather than risk creating a patchwork of differing rules across the country, states should defer to upcoming federal rules – at least for now.

Drones present significant opportunities to advance technological innovation. They are lightweight, maneuverable, and capable of carrying cameras, sensors, and other sorts of technologies into places that used to be much harder or more expensive to reach. Using drones, scientists can now study volcanoes, engineers can more easily inspect pipelines and bridges, and filmmakers can capture skylines and landscapes from a whole new perspective.

Given drones’ enormous untapped potential, policymakers should pause and take stock before they harm an important new field of technological innovation.

Alan McQuinn

Alan McQuinn is a research assistant at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank focused on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy.