THE POTENTIAL for unmanned aircraft — also known as drones — to make life easier is tantalizing, eliciting images of tiny package-delivery devices zipping around town so UPS trucks wouldn’t have to. On the other hand, as The Post’s Craig Whitlock reported, the Federal Aviation Administration has received 25 reports of drones nearly striking manned aircraft in the past six months, often near airport runways. So should the government crack down or loosen up? In fact, it should do both.
The FAA currently allows recreational drone operators — hobbyists — to fly their miniature aircraft with a few restrictions, which include that they fly their drones where they can see them, away from airports and below 400 feet. The number of near-collisions, however, suggest that the FAA can’t adequately enforce those rules on the thousands of hobbyists in the United States. Aviation experts warn about errant drones striking helicopter rotors or getting sucked into jet engines with disastrous consequences.
Meanwhile, flying drones for commercial purposes, whether to dust crops, film television shows or take videos of real estate for sale, remains mostly forbidden. The FAA has granted a few exceptions to its prohibition, for example to some Hollywood camera operators. But the agency is still in the process of writing rules under which regular commercial drone flights could occur without a special exception for every operator. (One potentially interested party is Amazon.com, which is led by Jeffrey Bezos, who also owns The Post.) The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the FAA is leaning toward a very restrictive requirement that every commercial drone operator carry a traditional pilot’s license.
Here’s what should happen instead: The FAA should finally release rules governing commercial drone flights shorn of the absurd requirement that operators must have hours of cockpit time in real planes. Commercial drone pilots should have adequate practice on the equipment they are actually using, and they should be up to speed on FAA rules on unmanned aircraft, air traffic control practices and how to deal with bad weather. They don’t need to know how to land a Cessna. If the FAA doesn’t make that clear, Congress should.
Meanwhile, the FAA should also find better ways to keep drones out of sensitive airspace. It is already tracking down operators responsible for breaking the government’s fairly simple restrictions, and it takes pride in its efforts to educate hobbyists about the rules. It could do more of both. Yet the most effective new enforcement tool might also have to come with Congress’s blessing. Some manufacturers are already building systems into their recreational drones that prevent them from breaching the FAA’s 400-foot ceiling or getting too close to airports. Lawmakers should give the FAA the authority to mandate that these restrictions are written into recreational drones’ firmware — and if Congress doesn’t act, the industry should do so voluntarily.