This month in my Scientific American column, I bemoaned the upcoming Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations that would restrict the blossoming commercial drone industry—and shut down much of it.
In mid-February, the FAA did indeed introduce its new proposals. They would not require drone pilots to have an actual airplane pilot license, which is good. But they would still require you to keep a line of sight with your drone, which would rule out ideas including Amazon's 30-minute package delivery, remote pipeline inspections, anti–animal-poaching efforts, and so on. And they would limit drone flights to around 150 meters, which would mean that engineers can't use drones to inspect skyscrapers, tall bridges and many other structures.
At the same time, it's easy to understand why the FAA is worried about an unregulated, drone-filled airspace. All you have to do is review some of the greatest hits in drone crash disaster history. Here’s a sampling:
Spectators injured: August 2013—A drone capturing footage for a production company abruptly tilted and crashed into the crowd at the Great Bull Run (a day of music, drinking—and actual bull runs) in Virginia. "Four or five" spectators suffered minor injuries, according to news reports.
Drone decks groom: August 2013—A drone operator, hired to capture video of a wedding, accidentally flew it directly into the groom's head.
Australian athlete injured: April 2014A photographer was piloting his drone in order to film the Endure Batavia Triathlon in Geraldton, Australia. But he lost control of the drone—which wound up hitting one of the runners in the head, causing minor injuries.
Photographer's nose cut: December 2014TGI Fridays restaurants thought it would be cute to fly a drone carrying mistletoe over diners' heads. A drone operator at a Brooklyn restaurant, however, trying to demonstrate how much control he had, attempted to land the drone on a reporter's hand—but the reporter flinched, sending the drone into the face of her photographer and cutting her nose.
Drone lands on the White House lawn: January 2015—This one made national news. A Defense Department employee in Washington, D.C., crash-landed his personal drone on the White House lawn. He was, he admitted, intoxicated.
Later, the manufacturer of the drone—DJI—modified its popular drones' software to prevent them from flying within 24 kilometers (15 miles) of downtown Washington, D.C. That GPS-programmed no-fly zone adds on to DJI's existing list of no-go zones, which has been expanded to include 10,000 airports.