Around the world, the number of registered commercial drone operators is rapidly increasing. Unfortunately, few of them are in the United States thanks to an outdated and taxing regulatory scheme that has failed to keep pace with technological innovation.
The biggest impediment for a wider and more robust commercial drone, or unmanned aerial systems/vehicles (UAS/UAV), environment is twofold: public perception and regulatory hurdles. While public perception will have to be left to civil society and social norms to address, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates U.S. airspace, could be doing a great deal more to catalyze the nascent commercial drone market – mainly, by doing less.
The FAA’s recently promulgated rules for private drones distinguish between “commercial” and “recreational” uses – a strange delineation given the similarities between commercial and hobby drone platforms. After all, it is specious to reason that hobbyists are, by nature, more safety-conscious than commercial operators. Why should a drone weighing 5 lbs. used purely for the enjoyment of the spectacle be subject to a separate regulatory classification than a 5 lbs. drone used for paid services? If anything, the commercial operator has a greater incentive for safety and security, and is far more likely to be insured against liability than a recreational user. But concerns over the FAA’s regulatory differentiation between the purposes of use are merely the tip of the iceberg.
Issues such as availability of spectrum, the consistencies of radio links between drones and their operators, privacy concerns, disparate weights and associated safety implications, and more have continually plagued regulators in the U.S. and around the globe. Unfortunately, while regulators struggle to cope with these potential problems, commercial drones are already being integrated into the airspace of less risk-averse nations, such as Germany and Japan, with prime movers set to achieve important short-term gains. And these myriad regulatory anxieties surrounding drones are not unique to the United States.
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