Drones: What can possibly go wrong?

Five weeks ago, an alleged hobbyist claiming he didn’t know what he was doing, landed a drone on the White House lawn. For good reason, this has raised the concern of the Secret Service to the vulnerability of all air spaces to drone penetration.

Ever since the use of drones became a military tactic, and soon thereafter a growing activity for hobbyists, I’ve been asking myself facetiously, “What can possibly go wrong?”

The White House incident helped bring the answer into focus: Everything.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) put in place a temporary ban on commercial activity, as if the titans of commerce were the only evil-doers out there.

I think the opportunity for freelance mischief with drones greatly outweighs the threat that law-abiding businesses present, even if Amazon plans to dive bomb your front porch with packages you purchased.

But now the FAA has finally weighed in with some proposed rules governing commercial use of small unmanned aircraft. This is of more than passing interest to the news media because even those in the newspaper business (like their brethren in radio and TV) may occasionally have need for video of breaking news for our websites.

Think in terms of a 10-car pile-up on the freeway, a railway tanker derailment and spill or a plane crash in a remote forest, and one can understand why we may want to have a drone too.

That said, the FAA’s proposed regulations are not all that onerous. However, the problem will come from freelancers who don’t follow any rules, and may be intent on breaking a few laws.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that law enforcement officials have discovered criminals using drones to smuggle drugs and other contraband not only across national borders but into penitentiaries.

The latter makes me wonder what the cost will be to place a screen over every prison exercise yard in the nation.

And if the military can weaponize drones, it won’t be long before gangs and jihadists do too.

A partial solution to the White House problem is at the manufacturer level. The people who make drones can program the GPS software in the device to prevent it from flying over restricted air space. Require that all drones have the proper software in order to be sold, and that should solve the problem — until operators figure out how to bypass that little issue just like people who have unplugged automobile odometers have been doing for years.

And just as mandatory gun safety classes may be required in order to obtain a conceal and carry permit, they don’t work for those who think the rules don’t apply to themselves.

What can possibly go wrong? Well, somebody will eventually land a drone on somebody’s head and disfigure, blind or kill them. Somebody’s finger will be mangled. Somebody’s window broken or home damaged. Somebody’s car will be hit by a drone, causing an accident. The list is endless.

The FAA rules propose that people need to be trained in drone operation before they can have an unmanned operator certificate. They will need to be at least 17 years old and pass a test on aeronautical knowledge at an FAA-approved testing center.

Some enthusiasts were concerned that the FAA would force people to undergo the same kind of training needed to fly a Cessna, but that isn’t in the proposal.

The drones will have to remain within line of sight of the operator. Use will only be allowed during daylight hours. Maximum speed allowed will be 100 mph and the altitude will be limited to 500 feet.

Before the FAA handed down its proposal, a North Carolina radio station on its own set up a whole array of procedures to be followed for drone use. The operator had to have 21 hours of stick time. The operator was required to keep a log book. Any time the drone was used, the operator had to have a spotter along to watch for obstacles, people and traffic. They could only fly the drone for half the battery life of the drone before changing batteries. The drone was not allowed to go higher than 400 feet and had to remain five miles from any airport. They had to respect police barriers, even at maximum altitude and were not allowed over private property.

All of those rules make sense, whether they become part of the law or not.

However, more than anything, the FAA regulations will give insurance companies a structure on which to price drone policies. Don’t follow the rules, and the insurance policy won’t pay. That seems like about the best we can expect in the Wild West environment of this new technology.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 616-1932 or by email at [email protected]