Will the FAA Prevent Drones from Getting off the Ground?

Livraisons par drones

Drones provide a paradigmatic example of an accelerating technology. They first appeared in the 1950s, but improvements in computation and automation have made drones far more capable in the last ten years. During that short period, drones have already transformed our air force and are on the cusp of commercialization. More generally, when machine intelligence gets into a space, it relentlessly advances, shaking up the world and creating wealth and opportunities.

How the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chooses to regulate drones thus has implications for accelerating technology more generally. And, from what has been published about their proposals, the agency appears to be making a complete hash of the enterprise. Some reports say that commercial drone operators will be required to hold a commercial pilot’s license and thus have experience in manned flight. But the ability to pilot an airplane may be neither necessary nor sufficient to handle drones. Piloting a vehicle while in the air is very different from controlling it remotely. And drones can hover and roll with an agility that planes do not possess.

Second, the regulations have been reported to be one-size fits all, at least for drones under 55 pounds. But drones within this group could vary substantially in their sizes, shapes, and capabilities. One alternative to a single set of rules would be to require drones and their pilots to meet general performance standards. General standards also have the advantage of taking account of the  continued improvements in sensors and computation that can make drones progressively and rapidly more safe. Rules that do not recognize the dynamism of accelerating technology will be become obsolete very fast. They will also retard the commercial development of promising industries.

The FAA might also consider more experimental approaches. For instance, it could permit drones in certain areas, so long as controllers have sufficient insurance to cover any negligence or reckless operation. To the extent that tort law offers insufficient protection, the FAA could also announce a schedule of fines for untoward events, like crashes.  If companies were to face the full cost of any mistakes, they would be likely to generate efficient safety protocols from the bottom up. And the FAA would learn if this approach was better in terms of safety and innovation  than in areas governed by their own regulations.

In areas of accelerating technology, like drones, it is very difficult for top-down bureaucratic processes to gain the knowledge for optimal regulation. Thus, agencies should choose structures of regulation that elicit information as well as provide incentives for private actors to find the best rules for themselves.

Reader Discussion

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on November 29, 2014 at 12:20:27 pm


Perhaps, it is the accelerating technology that bothers some of us.
Are we to celebrate Google now having drones over our neighborhoods in order that they may form a better picture of, let's say, my landscaping preferences, or the tread on my tires? I can see it now, an unending stream of tire ads mixed in with fertilizer recommendations. No thanks, I will get my manure the old fashioned way!

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Image of gabe
on November 29, 2014 at 18:44:00 pm

Thanks John. It does seem the FAA has really dragged their feet on the, what was, a non-issue. Hollywood has been using drones for years commercially. Now hobbyists are clear to fly and remain the least motivated to comply with any common sense laws. I fly a drone for my real estate clients and among every other 'drone pilot' would be more than happy to perform a series of tests or certifications to be compliant. I don't expect to have to learn to fly a manned aircraft, though!

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Image of Kyle
on November 30, 2014 at 22:06:17 pm

Of course the FAA will prevent drones from getting off the ground. They already destroyed the general aviation industry. It took an act of Congress to [partially] undo the damage.

Many in aviation blame trial lawyers for the reforms required by the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994. But this, as usual, misplaces cause and effect. The courts simply held manufacturers, suppliers and operators to the “standards” espoused by the FAA without determining whether those standards had any effect whatsoever on the injuries claimed.

And once again with drones, the FAA is on-course to write regulations that no one wants, no one believes will work, and no one can comply with. In other words, the FAA will write the regulations that makes its job easiest. And everyone else can be damned.

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Image of Glen

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