REPORTS OF dangerous drone encounters are multiplying. Aircraft crews, security officials and others say they’ve seen many small, unmanned and unmarked aerial vehicles where they do not belong: over airports, 12,000 feet aloft near a JetBlue airliner, above the White House grounds. The military scrambled fighter jets last week after a Cessna pilot spotted a drone in restricted airspace over Washington. Pilots have reported 700 close encounters with drones to the Federal Aviation Administration so far this year, already tripling last year’s total. Some of these reported drones turn out to be something else, such as birds. But the increasing number of stories about small flying objects that could mangle a jet engine intake, disrupt a propeller or smash a windshield is still scary.
Happily, there is much more the government can do. The FAA sets rules on two types of drone activity — amateur and commercial. Hobbyists are barely regulated. Commercial operators have to undergo onerous review before they can put drones in the air. This picture should change.
The government should first be more upfront about what’s going on. Post reporter Craig Whitlock was able to obtain this year’s drone reports before the FAA finally released them Friday night, but it shouldn’t take intrepid journalism to see them in a timely manner: Public education about the dangers is crucial, particularly because the government has had a hard time enforcing its rules on amateur drone flights.
Next, the government should require that drones sold to amateurs come with a lot more safeguards. An obvious upgrade is “geo-fencing,” designing firmware so that these devices cannot ascend more than their legal limit of 400 feet or breach any restricted airspace, such as around airports where passenger planes descend into low altitudes. Yes, such safeguards could be deactivated. But most users would not do so, and those who did fiddle with the safety equipment would be knowing law-breakers.
Security personnel, meanwhile, are looking at technologies that will help them detect and destroy errant drones, a challenge when the aircraft are so small and when downing one could pose threats to people below. At the least, it’s worth investigating whether hobbyists’ drones should come with transponders or some other technology to alert air traffic controllers or security details to their presence.
On commercial drones, by contrast, the government should loosen up. The FAA is still writing permanent rules governing commercial drone use, and the agency might not be done until next summer. For now, only a relatively small group of businesses have obtained special FAA permission to fly unmanned aerial vehicles to do things like shoot movies, make aerial videos of real estate for sale, examine power lines and dust crops. An open question is whether and how the government will allow for tantalizing possibilities such as drone-based package delivery, a concept that Amazon.com, whose chief executive is Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos, is moving forward with.
The rise of drones can be a great thing — if the government writes and enforces smart rules of the road. Er, sky.
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