Legislation comes about because enough people are either doing something they should not do or they are not doing something they should do. Though many professions and hobbies police themselves effectively to eliminate the need for tough laws and tough enforcement, it looks like civilian drone flying is going to need a government nanny to keep everyone safe. The most recent incidents of unmanned drones being flown by amateur operators and aircraft being under the direct control of human pilots is found in the wildfire areas out west.
Aerial firefighting efforts are said to be at risk due to civilian drones flying as close as 50 feet to the aircraft used for fire suppression. The LA Times has reported it is becoming so bad that California has a Public Service Announcement that states, “If you fly, we can’t,” in reference to drone encounters. Prior to these incidents, a medical helicopter in Fresno that was transporting a patient had to take “evasive maneuvers” to avoid a large drone that reportedly got 15 to 20 feet from the aircraft.
Drones are nothing more than the next generation radio-controlled aircraft. Technology has advanced to make them stable platforms for supporting still and video cameras that can shoot up to 4k resolution. They can capture fantastic footage for personal and commercial use. However, FAA restrictions require a special exemption permit for drones to be used for commercial purposes, so even if a drone operator captures extraordinary footage for the evening news, it would be illegal for him to sell it.
Some highly advanced and easy-to-fly drones are now much more affordable, and there is no age requirement to buy one. In fact, looking at marketing images and videos of the devices, the younger crowd is a target demographic. Most drones have GPS capability to assist in controlling their flights, and many have an auto-return feature if radio communication is lost so the drone can land where it took off. Altitude recognition is part of GPS signals. A major issue is that drones are not permitted to fly above 400 feet, but the medical helicopter mentioned earlier was reported to be flying at 1,000 feet, which is 600 feet higher than the maximum altitude a drone is permitted to fly at.
Modern drones, including some relatively inexpensive models, can easily be flown up to a mile away from where the operator is standing. That can be a mile out or a mile straight up. Some have radio communication capability to fly much farther away from the operator. The temptation with these aircraft, especially since the operator can see real-time live video of what the drone cameras sees, is to go higher and higher. This makes encounters with commercial air operations not only likely but inevitable.
Educating drone users about the FAA and their rules may help. Getting manufacturers of drones to better educate drone users about safe operation may help too. The now defunct AirDroids company that marketed the Pocket Drone had a FAQ page that read, “Please note that in the US the FAA recommends restricting your altitude to no higher than 400 feet above the ground.” Recommends? That is like suggesting a limit to a teenager rather than declaring an absolute boundary that, if crossed, will result in consequences. Just like in all other matters that lead to strict legislation, the first person who goes to jail for a long time for infractions involving a drone will act as a warning to the rest.