Thanks to falling prices, spotty enforcement and the fact that it’s almost impossible to spot the devices being used, the FAA is often powerless to halt the growing drone swarm. Retailers freely sell the tiny planes, quadcopters and hexacopters for as little as a few hundred dollars, and entrepreneurs continually come up with creative uses like wedding photography and crop monitoring — along with delivering beer and dropping off dry-cleaning.
The result, observers and drone users warn, could be a Wild, Wild West in the nation’s skies. As small drone operators grow used to flying them without the FAA’s permission, they could become less inclined to obey any rules the agency puts in place. And with the cost of the technology continuing to drop, the drones could eventually become far too ubiquitous for the agency to police.
Meanwhile, the FAA is lagging in meeting a congressional mandate to allow commercial drones to share the skies legally.
(Sign up for POLITICO’s Morning Tech tip sheet)
“Most people want to comply with the FAA rules,” said Ted Ellett, a former FAA general counsel who is now a partner specializing in aviation at the law firm Hogan Levells. “But the more the FAA acts like a big daddy, behemoth government agency that is imposing excessive restrictions, the more the feeling of ‘I’m an American, they can’t tell me what to do’ kicks in. And that’s a real danger for the FAA.”
Plenty of drone users are going ahead without waiting for the agency.
“A lot of our members would like to start businesses using this technology,” said Timothy Reuter, the founder of the Drone User Group Network in Washington. “Some of them are waiting for the regulations to open up. Others, honestly, aren’t.”
The FAA says it’s committed to ensuring that its drone regulations protect public safety.
“The rulemaking process is deliberative and comprehensive,” the agency said in a statement Friday that referred to drones by the FAA’s preferred term, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems.”
(Also on POLITICO: Full technology policy coverage)
“Because UAS is an emerging technology, we want to ensure that we get it right and that we do not increase risk in the world’s safest aviation system,” the FAA added. “We expect to publish the small UAS proposed rule for public comment later this year.”
The agency probably will eventually issue two rules: one for drones less than 55 pounds, which are likely to fly under 400 feet, and one for heavier drones, which are likely to share airspace with manned aircraft.
Most of the explosion in drone use has come with the cheaper small drones, which typically remain in sight of the operator the entire time they’re in flight. The larger drones, which can resemble the military’s famous Predators, often require an airfield to take off and aren’t typically owned by individuals.
It’s not clear exactly what regulations the FAA will propose. The agency could require drone operators to register, pay fees or go through safety training. It could also place restrictions on drone use for safety reasons.
(Also on POLITICO: Dianne Feinstein spots drone inches from face)
But in the meantime, the FAA is sticking to the stance it’s held since 2007 — that using drones for commercial purposes is illegal.
The agency said it has sent out 12 warning letters to drone operators but also handles incidents with verbal warnings. In one case, the agency issued a $10,000 fine to a Swiss drone operator who it said was operating “recklessly” when flying at the University of Virginia in 2011. The case is under appeal and is before a National Transportation Safety Board administrative court.
While a 2010 law set a September 2015 date for the FAA to safely allow commercial drone flights, the Transportation Department’s inspector general told a House panel this month that it’s unlikely the agency would meet the deadline. (The FAA has approved one use of commercial drones: ConocoPhillips is using a large drone in the Arctic to monitor icebergs.)