WHAT WAS thought to be drones temporarily shut down traffic near Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey earlier this week. Now officials say they are unsure exactly what it was that two pilots spotted in the air. (A bird? A superhero?) Still, the incident points to the importance of upcoming action from the Federal Aviation Administration that could aid in similar situations and pave the way for wider use of a technology that promises manifold advantages.
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced this month that the FAA will work on standards this year for remote identification of small unmanned aircrafts. Officials also plan to allow pilots to fly over crowds and at night without a waiver, provided they meet certain requirements. It’s an encouraging pair of proposals: Remote ID will make drones safer, and the step up in safety will make it easier to eliminate restrictions that hamper a burgeoning industry.
The future of drones in the United States has little to do with armed robots swarming darkened skies and much more to do with farmers checking on crops and livestock from afar, or emergency services surveying the aftermath of a natural disaster. Companies such as Amazon, whose founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, also owns The Post, see a future for speedy package delivery. That cannot happen unless regulators roll back rules they are currently considering. In fact, the FAA should go even further.
Pilots are still generally required to keep drones within their lines of sight, which is reasonable for unsophisticated vehicles that lack the ability to fly autonomously and stay out of trouble. But manufacturers have already started experimenting with “geofencing,” which automatically prevents drones from entering prohibited airspace. Tested hazard-avoidance and communications systems could also assuage concerns about drones that are not under constant one-pilot-to-one-machine observation. The FAA has awarded contracts for crafting safeguards like these; those efforts should continue and expand. Then the agency should consider lifting prohibitions on properly outfitted aircraft.
Whatever requirements apply to commercial drones should apply to recreational drones, too. Congress once hamstrung the FAA from regulating hobbyists, but things have changed: Lawmakers empowered the FAA in late 2017 to craft rules governing civilian drone pilots. Those rules should be at least as stringent as they are for professional operators. Even some of the strictures the FAA now wants to loosen for commercial operators might still be worth imposing on civilians, who have a checkered track record for responsible flying.
The FAA’s slow but steady permission of drones into the national airspace will come with many more challenges, from privacy concerns surrounding surveillance drones to the proper protocol for traffic management. Still, the agency is right to responsibly enable this technology.