Not So Fast: Why Congress Needs to be Wary of Hastily Passing New Drone Regulations

September 24, 2015

Congressional Republicans aren’t the only ones in Washington who are planning to attach an amendment altering substantive policy to a “must-pass” bill in the next few weeks. While Senator Chuck Schumer’s planned  drone amendment is receiving far less attention than House Republicans’ fight against Planned Parenthood, and perhaps deservedly so, it is still an immensely important development because of the implications it will have on one of the most intriguing developments in modern technology: the expanding drone industry.
Recent developments in technology have made it abundantly clear that drones possess an enormous potential to impact American all aspects of society, both as a recreational “toy” for the average citizen and as a powerful engine for  economic growth in the commercial arena.

However, the rapidly increasing prevalence of drones in America comes with several negative side effects, concerning both citizens and lawmakers alike.

Just this summer, many news reports surfaced highlighting some of these negatives. Drones have complicated efforts to combat wildfires in California and even crashed into a spectator seating area at the US Open in New York City. Somewhat alarmingly, FAA statistics show a drastic increase in drone sightings by airline pilots, up almost 300% from last year.
Although these reports and statistics may suggest otherwise, the FAA is aware that civilian drones need to be policed and is already doing so. The FAA currently has a set of guidelines in place with the goal of promoting responsible drone use. However, the FAA is quick to realize the need for a more comprehensive set of regulations and is scheduled to release a finalized version of drone laws by the summer of 2016. Nevertheless, some are not content with this timeline and are calling on government officials to find a more immediate national solution before disaster strikes.
Senator Chuck Schumer has heard the calls for a more immediate legislative fix, and is proposing a drone-regulating amendment to a “must-pass” FAA reauthorization bill. Schumer’s amendment requires all drones sold or operated in the United States to be equipped with geo-fencing technology, a measure he suspects will pass with bipartisan support. This geo-fencing technology would theoretically eliminate the possibility human error with regard to drone intrusion into “no fly zones” by using built in software to restrict drones from operating in certain designated areas. Specifically,  the proposed amendment would prevent drones from operating “within two miles of airports or above 500 feet” and also limit drone use around major event sites. With his amendment, Schumer intends to beef up the proposed FAA drone laws, which do not currently include any language requiring the geo-fencing technology. Schumer stresses that his amendment is a vital step towards preventing a major catastrophe, one which could have deadly consequences.
Despite Schumer’s contention that his geo-fencing amendment will pass with bipartisan support in Congress, not everyone agrees that the geo-fence requirement is the most appropriate and effective solution to the drone dilemma. Matt Wait, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab, believes the problem can be solved simply by enforcing the FAA regulations that are already on the books, which already prohibit drones from flying near airports. Furthermore, Wait points out that there are already hundreds of drones in use that are not equipped with the geo-fencing technology, and likely never will be if the onus falls on the private users to install the appropriate software. Even more concerning, the geo-fencing software is susceptible to hackers who can override the drone’s built in prohibitions, rendering the technology virtually useless.  Tests show that the geo-fencing software can be hacked with relatively simple devices allowing the drone to ignore the virtual boundaries and enter the “no fly zones.”
While there is no doubt that civilian use of drones needs to be regulated to some extent to prevent needless danger to society, these regulations need to practical when balance against the industries growth potential. Requiring geo-fencing technology on all drones may not be the best way to achieve this balance. Chuck Schumer’s amendment is simply a quick fix to a problem that has yet to be fully analyzed. This type of quick legislative fix is almost certainly never the best fix and almost always presents unforeseen problems down the road. The truth is that the FAA, the agency most knowledgeable and competent to deal with this issue, already regulates civilian drone usage and is in the process of producing a more refined and complete set of regulations to account for the potential problems caused by the increase in drone usage.  While Schumer’s amendment is well intentioned, it has the potential to stifle drone usage and development, something that the burgeoning drone industry cannot afford.