Regulating the Drone Economy
February 19, 2015
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  • Interest in drones has been growing faster than government rules about how they can be used. That’s what makes the Obama administration’s proposed rules for unmanned aircraft by businesses and federal agencies so important. The measures include many good ideas but do not do enough to protect the privacy of Americans.

    Drones have played ever more important military roles, particularly in tracking suspected terrorists abroad in places like Pakistan. But these flying robots also have commercial uses, like monitoring energy pipelines, photographing real estate and managing large farms.

    With few exceptions, however, the Federal Aviation Administration has prohibited the commercial use of drones. On Sunday, the agency proposed allowing commercial use as long as operators pass a written test every two years. The proposal would also restrict when and how the devices can be used. On the same day, President Obama imposed some restrictions on how federal agencies like the F.B.I. and Customs and Border Protection collect information from drones and what they do with it.

    The F.A.A.’s proposal would require that drone operators always be able to see the aircraft without the aid of binoculars, cameras or other devices. The aircraft can be no heavier than 55 pounds, cannot be flown higher than 500 feet or faster than 100 miles per hour. The devices can be used only during daylight hours and cannot be flown over people not involved in their use. That means a movie director could fly a drone over a film set but not over a pedestrian on the street.

    Some businesses like Amazon, which says it plans to deliver packages by drones, complain that the rules are too restrictive because operators will have to stay close to their machines. But the rules are a sensible starting point for a new technology. Most drones cannot yet sense and avoid obstacles, making them a hazard to people and property. In recent months, drones, mostly operated by hobbyists, have had near misses with airplanes and one crashed on the South Lawn of the White House. As drone technology advances, officials can change the rules.

    Regardless of what the final rule says, the F.A.A. could find it difficult to enforce the regulation. It will have to rely on complaints from the public and local law enforcement. Also, the agency, which is in the middle of a major upgrade to the nation’s air traffic system to reduce congestion, may not have enough resources to monitor the thousands of drones that could take to the sky once this rule is finalized in the coming months. The agency has about 7,200 employees in its aviation safety division, a number that has not increased much in recent years.

    Mr. Obama’s action on drone use by government agencies is much more problematic. For example, the president’s memorandum says the government should not retain personally identifiable information collected by drones for more than 180 days. But agencies can keep the data for longer if it is “determined to be necessary to an authorized mission of the retaining agency” — a standard that grants officials far too much latitude. Moreover, the administration says agencies have to provide only a “general summary” of how they use drones, and only once a year. Law enforcement agencies like the F.B.I. and local police departments are already using drones and manned aircraft for surveillance, often without obtaining warrants, but they have said little publicly about what they are doing with the information collected.

    The use of drones is likely to grow, and the devices could become as common as utility and delivery trucks. At the dawn of this technology, it’s appropriate to set sound safety and privacy rules.