Monday, March 12, 2012

I hope the FAA regulates drones with care and intelligence

The Economist recently had an article on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) in the private sector.
Drone aircraft are no longer restricted to military use. They are being built and used by hobbyists, activists and estate agents, among others. What are the implications for safety and privacy?
The article cites some applications -- "monitoring traffic, checking electricity cables and pipelines, surveying forestry and crops, taking aerial photographs, patrolling wooded areas for fire". Drones are under development by many firms, some are intended for very low altitude use, some are very small, many are intended to be very simple to launch and to pilot, and some will be sold at very modest prices, much less than the current helicopters.

The Federal Aviation Administration and its counterparts in other countries are trying to figure out how to regulate the drones. Apparently in the United States hobbyists can already fly drones (and model airplanes) and waivers are being granted to developers to test designs and products, but commercial use of drones is still a question.

It seems to me that the regulation should differ according to many factors:

  • Is the drone to be used over urban, rural or wild lands.
  • Is the drone to fly in areas in which it would potentially endanger civil aviation or commercial aviation?
  • What is the use proposed for the drone. In applications where the use could be life saving (such as disaster relief or searching for lost children) more flexibility should be granted.
  • What equipment is carried on the drone, such as detection of other drones or planes or parachutes to allow safe landings in drone engines fail.
  • Pilot licensing, and the qualifications of the agency and pilot of the drone.
It seems to me that regulation is required, but over regulation could slow the use of very valuable tools for many civilian applications not to mention to development of a nice little manufacturing industry for which the United States might have a competitive advantage.

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