RESPONDING TO a drastic uptick in the number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — also known as drones — showing up in places they do not belong, the Obama administration announced last week that it will soon start requiring recreational drone owners to register their UAVs with the federal government. That’s fine. But it is not nearly enough.
The Federal Aviation Administration has struggled to keep a handle on the proliferation of drones flown by amateurs. As the number of UAVs in circulation has surged, so has the number of potentially dangerous encounters. Pilots flying manned aircraft now report more than 100 drone sightings a month, according to the FAA. Drones have been reported near airports and at high altitudes meant for larger, more regulated craft, even though federal rules ban them from flying within five miles of an airport or above 400 feet. One even flew over the park in front of the White House this year.
The dangers include unintentional collisions with jet engines and intentional violations of sensitive airspace for malicious purposes. But under the existing system, it is nearly impossible to track down who is violating the rules, so taking basic safety precautions is up to users, who may not even know about their responsibilities.
The FAA’s registration system might help — a bit. Registration, which owners of new and existing drones will have to submit to, will enable investigators to identify the owners of drones that crash, which will help them enforce the regulations that too many recreational operators flout. Regulators also hope that forcing owners to register will improve awareness of and voluntary compliance with the rules: Owners will know what the regulations are and feel more exposed to scrutiny if they mess up.
Yet this is just the bare minimum the government should be doing, and it has taken far too long to get even here. Drones should be required to carry transponders that are difficult to deactivate so that they can be seen as they enter restricted airspace and so that investigators can easily identify owners. They should also be required to carry “geo-fencing” technology that renders drones incapable of flying where they are not supposed to go. These sorts of upgrades will make some UAVs more expensive. They may also require an act of Congress. But they are worth the cost and effort.
Meanwhile, even as recreational drone registration is on a fast track for implementation, rules on commercial UAV operators have been very slow coming, holding back a range of tantalizing business uses for these tools. (Retail giant Amazon.com, whose chief executive is Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos, is among those investing in drone technology.) While the amateurs have had free rein, companies have been highly restricted. This should change — and quickly.