Regulating the Regulators of the Commercial Drone Industry

I was walking along the Monterey Bay coastal trail the other day when I heard a cacophony of noise from the seagulls and Canadian geese and realized there was a camera-equipped drone floating amongst them. Drawing nearer I saw a quirky-looking dude operating the device, and found myself in a group of gawking observers behaving much like we might have behaved on a very different ocean prospect in Kitty Hawk, NC, in 1903.

Thinking about it later, I realized drones were already all around us in all sorts of relatively innocent uses, and are likely to become ubiquitous in the future. But as New America Fellow Konstantin Kakaes notes in an article in the new issue of the Washington Monthly, they may largely be drones manufactured elsewhere, despite the US edge in aviation and other forms of technology. That’s not so much because of “excessive regulation” by the federal government, as conservatives might argue. A bigger problem is the underfunding and regulation of regulators–mostly the FAA–by conservatives and by industry groups seeking to leash or control the supposed watchdog.

“If you look to France,” says Kallman of Airware [a US company that manufactures drone components], “French regulation has been some of the most innovative in the world. They don’t have to go through the same procedures.” French regulators, he notes, have more discretion, which allows them to “iterate out initial steps quickly, and slowly expand.” The FAA, on the other hand, is “stuck with the process they’ve got.”

Indeed, that process is the consequence of years of effort in Washington to take discretion away from regulators. Several bills now before Congress (mostly sponsored by Republicans) would regulate regulators even further. You can argue that such efforts make the regulatory process more democratic. You can also argue that they make it more susceptible to the influence of lobbyists and to the deadening hand of bureaucratic complexity. What’s hard to argue, at least in the case of cutting-edge industries like drones, is that it’s good for business.

The whole piece is worth a read if you’ve always thought conservatives have a pro-business approach to regulation. As we’ve been arguing here at WaMo for a good while, Republicans seem more focused in making government stupid than making it smaller or more efficient.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.