Not too long ago, unmanned aircraft systems — better known as drones — were seen primarily as a tool the military used to spy on bad guys in combat zones and, in some cases, to bomb them, preferably without civilian casualties.
But now, anyone can walk into a Fry's Electronics or Samy's Camera store and buy a quadcopter with a camera for less than $100 and have it zipping through the sky in minutes. No instruction, no registration and no requirement to know the rules governing airspace. And, often, no clear understanding of the havoc one plastic toy can cause.
The litany of drone mishaps in recent months has underscored the freewheeling nature of this new technology, which recalls the early days of automobiles, when there were few rules and many accidents. In the latest incident — but surely not the last one — an 11-month-old girl was hit with debris when a man crashed his drone near the Pasadena Civic Center last week.
A few drone accidents wouldn't themselves be cause for concern. But increasingly, recreational or hobby drones are interfering with firefighting operations, helping smugglers move drugs and causing near-misses with airplanes. With the popularity of drones growing exponentially — analysts estimate that more than 1 million have been sold in the U.S. since 2013 — state and federal officials have a responsibility to address promptly the expanding public threat with appropriate rules and regulations.
Industry experts and the Federal Aviation Administration — the agency that regulates aircraft safety and the use of airspace — recognize the need to regulate drones operating in U.S. skies. But so far the focus has been on commercial drones, which aren't allowed in the air at all except with special permission. The FAA has proposed to change that, allowing commercial drones to operate under strict rules. The rules are expected to be finalized in the next few months.
Hobby drones, meanwhile, are barely regulated by the FAA, which considers them model aircraft and mostly out of its purview. It's wholly inadequate to lump in this sophisticated technology — which can practically fly itself, carry cameras or weapons and soar thousands of feet — with old-fashioned radio-controlled hobby aircraft that take expertise and training to operate.
The only rules for drone operators are these: Don't fly within five miles of an airport or in no-flight areas; don't interfere with manned aircraft; and keep the drone in sight. Those who break the rules or hurt people face criminal and civil penalties. If the authorities can find them, that is.
Holding reckless drone operators accountable has become a real problem for authorities. To that end, FAA officials are discussing whether to require registration for all drones, as it does for manned aircraft. Registration, which could be done by the states, could solve many of the headaches caused by private drone operators who don't know the rules of the air and are simply looking for a great photo of a fire or parade. It could also help officials communicate important information to drone users, such as temporary flight restrictions. The FAA has launched a phone app to keep drone users informed of such restrictions, but it still must rely on getting the word out to news outlets and on social media for events such as the pope's visit to the U.S. this week. It's exhausting for the FAA and not a long-term solution for communicating crucial no-fly information.
Other regulatory solutions being discussed include mandating "geo-fencing," or using software to create virtual barriers to flying (though this would only work for expensive drones with GPS); requiring drone pilots to pass a certification test on airspace rules similar to the road rules test for motorists; and expanding education for recreational users. All are worthy of consideration.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials don't have a particular prescription but say that something must be done. This summer, the occasional nuisance became a serious problem. After a high-flying drone stopped planes from dropping water on the Lake fire in June, the agency launched the "If you fly, we can't" campaign. That hasn't done much to stop drones from flying over fires, however. Cal Fire reports about a dozen drone incursions since then, compared with just a few the year before.
This is where states can step in. The federal government may control airspace, but states have long made laws about what people do on the ground, such as launching or landing aircraft, and how aircraft affect the people and property below. The National Conference of State Legislatures is trying to help states negotiate this new gray area by developing guiding principles for state lawmakers hoping to protect the public without inhibiting the emerging drone industry.
What states must not do is overreach and try to regulate federal airspace. That's one of the main reasons the drone industry opposed a bill (SB 142) that would have allowed property owners to file trespassing lawsuits when drones flew less than 350 feet above their land. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill this month, saying it exposed drone users to "burdensome litigation."
Another bill (SB 168), by state Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Roseville) and Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale), is an example of legislation that focuses on a drone's effect on the ground — in this case, on fires. It would allow firefighters to knock drones out of the sky in a fire zone while imposing stiffer penalties on violators. The governor should sign it and encourage more discussion about how to regulate recreational drone use.
Drone makers also have a stake in encouraging hobbyists to use their products responsibly. They would be wise to include in the boxes of recreational drones warnings about unsafe flying and specific instructions for checking flight restrictions.
Like the initial airplanes or cars, drones are part of a huge technological shift and not a fad that might fade in a few years. It's essential that we start figuring out how to incorporate them safely and responsibility into the landscape.