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Federal regulators are eyeing the drone industry.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a task force charged with setting the new rules around mandatory registration for some commercial drones. The yet-to-be-determined rules have drone enthusiasts and lobbyists worried about what regulations could do to the nascent industry.
Reports indicate that mandatory registration is created primarily so that law enforcement can hunt down operators who cause public safety violations, like recent drone crashes at sporting events or those buzzing dangerously close to commercial airliners. If a drone is recovered at a crash site, a registration number will make it easier to find the culprit.
So, what’s to worry about simple registration? I asked experts about the worst-case scenario, to see if all the handwringing was justified. They mentioned several.
Burdening Consumers And Manufacturers
One of the consensus concerns was overburdening consumers. Make it too cumbersome for a parent to buy their child a flying toy, and they’ll just buy something else.
“There is the risk that this a federal registry could be bad for the industry overall by being overly broad, e.g. requiring every kid with a toy drone to be on a federal list,” said Daniel Castro, vice president of industry lobby The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. “If we make it too hard for users to have these devices, they won’t buy them.”
Similarly, the rules are supposed to come out by the winter, which is especially worrisome for manufacturers who make much of their money during the holidays. “The task force is expected to complete its work a month from now in order to have a program in place for the holiday shopping season,” said Doug Johnson, VP of technology for the Consumer Electronics Association.
Given the tight timeline, one expert worries if agencies will even have the capacity to handle such an operation. “I’m not sure how an agency that is already getting extra manpower just to make regulations about drones in the first place is going to successfully get the bureaucracy to process registrations set up, much less operate efficiently,” said Jeremy Gillula of civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Curtailing Free Speech And Privacy
“A national registry has serious implications for privacy,” Castro argued. “Journalists may want to use drone photography to investigate government or industry corruption, or citizen journalists may want to use drones as part of a protest.”
He urges lawmakers to come up with rules that still protect legitimate anonymous actions where possible.
The EFF is especially concerned that the feds are overstepping their authority and not permitting the usual democratic process to take place.
“The bigger issue is that they seem to be completely ignoring normal federal procedures for enacting new regulations,” warned Gillula. “They haven’t issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.”
An FAA spokesperson responded by saying that drones qualify as aircraft, which are already subject to regulation: “By statute all aircraft are required to be registered. Congress has defined ‘aircraft’ to include UAS [unmanned aircraft system], regardless of whether they are operated for commercial purposes or by modelers and hobbyists. No rule is necessary to implement this statutory obligation.”
So, whatever the rules, the feds clearly think they are writing regulations within their legal mandate.
The public will know more in the coming months. But, it seems that experts do have legitimate concerns—especially with the busy holiday season fast approaching.
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Lead photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite