When I first took flight as a 10-year-old from a dirt road in New England, I discovered what generations of pilots have known: The sky is the domain of freedom and adventure, recreation and innovation.
To me, there is nothing better.
That’s why I find it so exhilarating that the sky is no longer off-limits to most people. Thanks to drones, the sense of adventure I first experienced as a (very lucky) kid is now more affordable than a car.
So it may seem strange that accessing such freedom would require infrastructure, rules, and accountability. And, yes, drone registration.
But those rules are coming, and soon. Before the end of the year, the Federal Aviation Administration says it will issue rules on drone registration. Good timing: 400,000 drones are expected to be purchased in the last quarter of 2015. On Saturday, a 25-member task force submitted recommendations to the FAA.
The FAA has time to adjust the task force’s recommendations, which is good. Current rules will need to be revised until we strike a balance between safety and innovation, standardization and enterprise. I’ll be the first to say that we aren’t there yet. But there are a few reasons why drone registration is a step in the right direction.
Three Great Things About Drone Registration—and One Point of Concern
1. There are about to be a lot of drones up there
The Consumer Technology Association estimates that 700,000 drones will be sold in the U.S. this year, an increase of 63 percent. We are rapidly approaching the point where unmanned aerial vehicle operations per year will surpass that of manned aircraft. This has the potential to change the face of not just aviation, but commerce, public safety, agriculture, and many other industries.
For generations, we aviators have belonged to a culture of apprenticeship and structured processes. Until now, a sky-seeking adventurer has always started with an instructor and has recorded every step of the journey in a pilot’s logbook. But with that many drones in the sky, the old model may no longer be sustainable. We need a scalable alternative in the form of technocratic rules and interoperable standards that are easy to understand and to follow so we can build the type of infrastructure we’ve come to expect. This registration/authentication system could easily be tied to our Facebook, Google, or LinkedIn accounts as the foundation of a more sophisticated version of our fabled pilot logbooks, and shepherd forward the same heritage of trust and accountability we expect from the aviation system today.
2. Accountability is good for businesses
If the sky is going to be accessible to everyone—and it is—we need rules to play by. This will become even more apparent as drones become a standard channel for doing business. According to reports, the registration requirement would be similar to a driver’s license, with humans registering rather than drones. If you own multiple drones, you would only have to register once, and your ID number would be physically attached to each of your drones. If you already have drones, you’d need to register.
I see a future in which many businesses have fleets of drones. In order for the public to buy in, they have to see that businesses take responsibility and are held accountable for the drones they use, just as with cars, trucks, helicopters, and airplanes.
3. The tension between regulation and freedom encourages progress
There will always be disagreements between regulators and entrepreneurs. This is nothing new. Since the dawn of aviation, the freedom of the sky has been balanced with structures that conform us to common rules of the road and a system of accountability. To me, this is healthy. Business interests will push regulations to become more sensible; regulations will encourage business to innovate away the risks that regulators are bound to curtail.
… And now for the point of concern
The FAA says that it has no desire to regulate toys. But the reports from the task force indicate that all drones weighing more than 250 grams ought to be registered. That’s about half a pound, which does include a lot of toys. In Europe, the threshold for drone registration is two pounds.
The 250-gram limit is based on the damage a drone that size might have if it collided with a helicopter or plane or if it fell and hit a person. These are legitimate concerns.
But I join Jim Williams, Skyward Advisory Board member and the FAA’s former top drone official, in calling for more data. There have been no studies on the damage that drones of different sizes would have to various aircraft.
“I am not a fan of the weight limit because there’s no science behind it,” Jim told reporters, pointing out areas of greater known risk than weight. “For example, drones that rely on preset waypoints to navigate—if an operator were to incorrectly enter altitude or location, a drone could encroach into manned aircraft territory.”
We need sensible regulations based on known risk. And I feel confident that we’ll get there. But it may take some time, as well as proof from those of us in the drone industry that we are continually lowering risks and achieving the same level of safety we expect when we walk down a jetway as we extend aviation into an era of aerial robotics.
The freedom of the sky is now in everyone’s hands.