How could anything as magical as drones be so controversial?
These hobby and commercial quadcopters are amazingly stable and simple to fly, thanks to incredible advances in sensors and electronics. Most can take off and land automatically—you just tap a button, and they can hover at eye level, motionless, even in a 30-mile-an-hour wind, awaiting your next command.
What makes these drones so powerful, and so contentious among the public, is also one of the things that makes them so enchanting: their cameras. As you fly a drone, you're treated to its point of view, thanks to a real-time feed to the screen of your phone or tablet. Suddenly, the world you've always known in roughly two dimensions becomes just as easy to explore in three. Inhabiting this third dimension becomes easy and affordable.
This freedom of vision is transforming industries. Filmmakers routinely employ drones to capture breathtaking chase sequences they could never film before. Engineers can inspect bridges and buildings without having to make risky climbs. Farmers monitor their crops from afar. Conservationists keep an eye on illegal poaching and dumping. Amazon is developing a program that would let you receive your orders in 30 minutes, thanks to drone-flown delivery of your packages.
It was all looking so promising—until the dimwits got involved.
People started abusing the privilege of having drones. They'd seek thrills by flying drones around airports, risking encounters with commercial airliners. They'd terrify privacy-sensitive neighbors by hovering near their windows. They'd fly on public beaches, zooming in on innocent bystanders.
The Federal Aviation Administration has taken its sweet time regulating the blossoming world of civilian drones. Now, however, it's stepping forward with proposed regulations so strict they could squash the entire field.
These rules would limit commercial drone flying to: daylight hours (sorry, moviemakers); 400 feet (sorry, aerial photographers); a line of sight between pilot and drone (sorry, crop inspectors); and those with an actual pilot's license. You'd have to learn to fly a plane before you could fly a $500 plastic quadcopter for a commercial undertaking. (Hobbyists can fly without FAA approval but are also required to comply with certain rules, such as maintaining a line of sight and avoiding manned aircraft.)
Now, the thing is, the FAA's job is tricky. It has to balance the popularity and promise of drones with issues of national security, radio-spectrum ranges, privacy and, above all, safety. One midair collision of a drone and an airplane would set the drone industry back much further than some FAA rules.
But the proposed rules have shocked drone fans and their representative groups (such as the Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Coalition and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International). These groups point out that the FAA seems to think that the new off-the-shelf, battery-powered drones such as the Parrot Bebop and the DJI Phantom (both under $1,000 and three pounds) are just as much a safety threat as huge, gas-powered military and industrial drones that weigh 40 pounds and stay aloft for 24 hours.
The line-of-sight rule, meanwhile, seems to ignore the fact that today's drones let you see where the drone is, by watching a phone or laptop screen in your hands, far from flying blind.
Critics of the proposed regulations note that the primary effect of these new rules would be to send the commercial drone industry into other countries, where the regulations are far less strict.
For many people, the biggest problem with today's drone popularity isn't safety of commercial operations—it's personal privacy. Their nightmares are haunted by hovering cameras. And the proposed FAA rules don't say anything at all about that problem.
The FAA's proposals are now in for a couple of years of public comment. Those who have become enchanted by the ability to explore the third dimension can now offer their two cents—and then hope that common sense prevails.