There’s something very wrong with recreational drones.
You can see the attraction. They can be extremely easy to fly, and they take cool pictures. The Consumer Electronics Association forecasts about 700,000 will be sold to hobbyists, gift-givers and random shoppers this year, up from 430,000 in 2014 but far fewer than the 1.1 million sales anticipated for 2016. Some are tiny flying toys, weighing less than an ounce. Some weigh more than 50 pounds and still count as “recreational.”
I think I speak for all of us when I say that we do not want to get in between a child and his ToyJoy F8 Space Trek RC Nano Drone. But it’s absolutely crazy that the bigger ones — the ones capable of flying in the same airspace as a helicopter or dropping a mystery package on a nuclear power plant — aren’t being licensed and strictly regulated.
Every day there seems to be a new story. A drone flew over the Oklahoma State Penitentiary this week, carrying a bundle of drugs and hacksaw blades dangling from a fishing line. Fortunately, it crashed before any inmates could grab the loot. Meanwhile, a drone flew into power lines in West Hollywood and knocked one to the ground, leaving about 700 customers without electricity.
Now it’s true that squirrels knock out power lines and nobody’s talking about regulating them. But squirrels don’t get in the way of passenger planes. The Federal Aviation Administration is getting about 100 reports of close encounters every month.
How can something terrible not happen sooner or later? “From the California point of view it’s only a matter of time,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the sponsor of the Consumer Drone Safety Act, which is at this point still just a proposal, not an actual law. The many near-disasters Feinstein’s office has chronicled include a number of cases in which planes and helicopters attempting to put out wildfires were forced to pull back because of drones in the airspace.
Also on this week’s drone report: A judge in Kentucky dismissed charges against a man who shot down a drone he said was flying over his property and spying on his family. We are not taking sides in this dispute, but since the point of most drones is the taking of pictures, you can see where this is going to become an issue.
When recreational drones came on the market, Congress regarded them as another version of model airplanes and basically told the FAA to keep its hands off. Model airplanes do have a long and relatively problem-free history. This is possibly because they’re kind of difficult to master, and someone who will go to the trouble of learning how to fly one will probably be disciplined enough not to do anything incredibly stupid.
But some drones don’t require much more skill than opening a box. And the incredibly stupid issue is extremely important here. Remember, we live in a land where professional football players lost fingers in two separate incidents involving playing with fireworks last Fourth of July.
The FAA has some authority over commercial drones, but on the recreational front there’s not much it can do unless Congress gets its act together. This is the same Congress that nearly collapsed from exhaustion this week after it managed to pass legislation calling on the federal government to keep paying its bills, but hope springs eternal.
Right now, the FAA and the Transportation Department are working on a drone registration program — like a warranty, when you buy a blender. Ideally, the registration system would make owners aware there are rules governing where they can fly, although there’d apparently be no way to guarantee they had actually read them.
It’s already totally illegal to fly a drone near an airport, but almost none of the violators have ever been caught. It’s also against the law to send one over a sports stadium on game day, but it still happens quite a bit. Last month one smashed into the stands at the U.S. Open in New York. Fortunately, the match underway at the time was not particularly thrilling and nobody was occupying the seats that got hammered. The operator turned out to be a local science teacher who said he was taking pictures of the scenery nearby when he lost control. “He was trying to fulfill his own intellectual curiosity,” the defense lawyer told The Daily News.
This is all very wrong. These things need to be identifiable, even when they’re in the air. And their owners ought to be required to take a safety course and get a license before they fly. You shouldn’t be able to go on the Web, make three clicks and — with no training whatsoever — buy a product that could threaten public safety. That’s only true for drones. And of course, in some states, handguns.