What is a drone? Is it just a new version of the model aircraft that decades of schoolchildren have flown in their backyards and parks with little harm to people or property? Or is it a far more dangerous, often much more substantial, piece of machinery that can fly thousands of feet in the air, requires little or no training to get off the ground and can cause serious damage?
For regulatory purposes, it's the former. And that's a problem because, as a federal appeals court noted last week, the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't have the authority to regulate model aircraft. This means the FAA must drop its 18-month-old requirement that owners of large recreational drones (defined as between 0.55 pound and 55 pounds) register with a federal database before they take to the air and possibly blunder into the path of a commercial jet. (Presumably, people can still register voluntarily, and they should.)
Congress must fix this, and quickly. Everyone using the federal airspace, whether they are doing so for work or just for fun, should be accountable for how they fly.
The FAA rushed to design and build a drone registry in late 2015 after an alarming number of recreational drone incursions into restricted areas — for example, when drones flying over wildfires in California forced firefighters to temporarily halt water drops. The registry seemed like a reasonable response. Commercial aircraft, manned or not, must register if operating in federal airspace, so why not hobbyists' drones? Registration could be done online at a cost of only $5. That way, the FAA could convey safe flying information to people who might not otherwise get it, including tips like "Don't fly your drone over a crowded stadium," as someone did at a San Diego Padres game on Sunday, crashing into the stands and just missing people nearby. It's unclear whether the pilot had registered his now-trashed drone with the FAA.
But the registration process was too onerous for John A.Taylor of the Washington, D.C., area, who filed the complaint. He challenged the requirement based on a 2012 federal law barring the FAA from regulating model aircraft, which it defined broadly as recreational unmanned aircraft capable of sustained flight and flown within sight of the operator. That's it — nothing about their weight, their capabilities or their technology.
Though the court's ruling may be legally correct, it's functionally flawed because it assumes that all unmanned aircraft are toys with limited range and little power to interfere with commercial air traffic. While some are, many are as sophisticated as commercial aircraft.
And now there are hundreds of thousands, if not more, of professional-grade recreational drones sold every year, making it all the more imperative that we know who is flying what in the nation's airspace. Surely Congress — and drone operators — can understand that the old rules must be updated for this new technology.