Eight years ago I entered the model aviation field as a hobbyist (that's not me in the picture...), and I got hooked. "Drones" as we know them today didn't exist when I started. My smallest drone today costs $49, and my biggest and fastest radio controlled airplane costs #$%& (there is a clear and present danger that my wife is reading this column...)
However, as drone technology evolved, so did their proliferation. And with the good, comes the bad. Several times drones have been observed near commercial flights on their final approach to landing. A report released by Bard College indicated that there were 327 incidents of drones flying too close to piloted aircraft between December 2013 and September 2015. The report's authors claimed they counted 28 incidents of pilots forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision.
Maybe we were lucky to not have a major accident thus far due to irresponsible flyers, as much as with lasers pointing at the cockpits of approaching planes.
In response to this new danger, the FAA released new rules, requiring the registration of the drone and its pilot. The FAA quickly received more than 4,500 comments on their proposed rulemaking in the 60-day comment period.
Even the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) weighed in on the issue, obviously, from the perspective of general and commercial aviation pilots worried about potentially fatal collisions with drones.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) has been fighting the rules since they were announced, and somehow made some progress, in allowing members of a self-regulating body (such as the AMA) would see some relief from the regulations. I now have to pay a $5 license fee and put a new sticker on each one of my 40-some radio controlled airplanes. At least they didn't ask for a $5 fee for each one of my planes...
Having said that--the FAA rules will not be successful in achieving what they set out to do, for the following reasons:
- If the violators are not AMA members, and choose not to observe the registration requirement, the FAA will have no way of tracking their drone back to them once they were involved in an incident. It is safe to say that someone who tries to fly a drone into the approach path of an incoming passenger plane, realizing he puts all passengers (and people on the ground) at risk, is not someone who will care to first register his drone. Why don't the FAA try to regulate the use of laser pointers, too?
- Most radio controlled airplane/helicopter/drone flying takes place in private fields. An FAA examiner will have a hard time entering the field to conduct inspections. In fact, they will be trespassing to do that.
- I'm pretty sure that even without the new rules, if you fly a drone into a commercial plane and cause an incident, possibly even a fatal one, and assuming the drone can be traced back to you, you will be prosecuted and sued under existing laws. No need for new ones.
- As soon as the rules were proposed, drone users began filing for waivers. So many waivers are sought that the FAA will have to approve them almost automatically, eliminating the protection the regulations were supposed to provide.
- What if the FAA required that drones be "pre-registered" (like cars have VIN engraved on it)? A large percentage of drones are built from scratch by their owners/buildings/pilots, making such a requirement not feasible.
The FAA's entry into regulating drones will not achieve the desired goals. Those who seek to cause damage, or are simply reckless and act with complete disregard to other people's life and property will continue to do so with drones, lasers, or rockets you can buy in any hobby store. Those who obey the law will simply have a harder time having fun and innovating!
Addition: After the initial publication of this article, I was approached by a campaign called Know Before You Fly, that seeks to educate all newcomers to unmanned aircraft technology about safe and responsible operation practices by providing clear and concise information about the existing guidelines, such as the flight restrictions around wildfires and near airports. The campaign was launched by the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International (AUVSI), the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) and the FAA last year. The campaign's website provides scores of useful information to all types of flyers, from hobbyists to commercial and professional.