i3 | August 05, 2017

Bob Gibbs: Drone Tech Deserves a Rethink in DC

Bob Gibbs

We will see a proliferation of commercial drone usage in the coming years. Aside from package delivery drones being used in the future, drones are currently being utilized in agriculture and disaster assessment and recovery efforts.

Many of us are accustomed to coming to the door and saying hello to the UPS or FedEx driver dropping off  a package. The familiar rumbling of the box truck pulling up to your home may soon be replaced with the buzzing of a package delivery drone. Amazon’s interest and research in drone-package-delivery is well known. In fact, representatives from the online retailer have testified in front of Congress about federal regulations regarding the use of unmanned aerial systems, the fancy term for drones. 

Drones, like so many emerging technologies, have future applications in industries we simply cannot fathom right now. Twenty years ago, who could have predicted the rise and domination of smartphones? We will see a proliferation of commercial drone usage in the coming years. Aside from package delivery drones being used in the future, drones are currently being utilized in agriculture and disaster assessment and recovery efforts. 

Farmers across the country are using small drones to collect data on crop health, soil quality, and hydrologic information. This data will help them with precision planting, increasing their yield and being responsible stewards of the environment. Another emerging area for drone use is in disaster relief and the insurance industry. In the immediate aftermath of tornados, hurricanes or other natural disasters, different types of infrastructure are being inspected before being brought back online. Drones can make it safer for first responders and emergency personnel to inspect downed power lines, ensure structural safety of bridges and roads, or search for survivors. 

As this industry grows, the use of drones in public airspace will require lawmakers and regulators to reconsider what is a twentieth century way of thinking about airspace, commercial or recreational flight, and public safety considerations. 

Recent guidelines from the Federal Aviation Administration set provisions and restrictions on unmanned aerial system operations. While some of the FAA’s changes make sense, and provide reasonable guidance on aerial drone usage, other aspects of the new rules may have the unintended consequences of stifling the utilization of drones in disaster assessment situations. Sophisticated drones, those that can be used to inspect damage to infrastructure, are often equipped with cameras that broadcast live back to an operator. The new FAA rules require drone operators to maintain line of sight with the drone. In recreational use, that makes sense for someone’s backyard. But when an engineer is surveying a bridge for damage after an earthquake, or a technician inspects power lines in the aftermath of a storm, maintaining visual line of sight is not always possible. 

The FAA needs to work with Congress to craft line of sight regulations that allow for responsive and responsible use of drones in emergency situations. Requiring line of sight across the board and not allowing for flexibility has the potential to endanger lives and make an emergency situation more dangerous.

Nascent industries and technologies like drones are often driven by start-up companies. It is important that federal regulators understand how big of an impact regulations can have on economic conditions, burgeoning industries, and startups. These small businesses generally do not have the massive army of lawyers established firms have to navigate the federal regulatory minefield. 

In 2015, the Mercatus Center published a study warning of the impact federal regulations had on entrepreneurship. It saw a correlation between the increase in regulatory activity and a decrease in the number of new small companies created. Additionally, it found that an increase in regulatory activity had “no statistically significant effect on births of large firms.” This means that as regulations pile up and compliance costs increase, the barrier to entry becomes greater and fewer entrepreneurs will open new small businesses. 

No one questions that reasonable and responsible rules should be in place to ensure public safety. As new technologies find new and innovative uses in the public space, federal agencies must understand that excessive or archaic regulatory burdens can have a real negative impact on these new markets. As private sector innovation reveals new and practical applications for unmanned aerial systems, Congress and the FAA must work to ensure federal regulatory policy is updated to ensure these innovations are not stifled by red tape right out of the gate. 

July/August 2017 i3 Cover Issue

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