Rising Drone Use Poses Litany of Potential Issues for Regulators

October 28, 2015

Three convicted sex offenders were arrested at or near the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, NC this year. One of the men posed as a ride inspector to gain access to the “kiddie land” section of the Fair. North Carolina Law prohibits registered sex offenders from attending “any place where minors gather for regularly scheduled educational, recreational, or social programs.”

Another man was not on the Fairgrounds when he was arrested, however, he was instead allegedly flying a drone – with a camera attached – over the Fair.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison remarked about learning that the man was a registered sex-offender “[i]t may not have one thing to do with the drone, but to me, being in law enforcement, it sends up a red flag.”
The use of drones for potentially criminal activities is just one of the many concerns that the public and regulators may have about the exploding private (and commercial) use of drones in the United States. According to the Washington Post “U.S. hobbyists are projected to buy about 700,000 drones this year, a 63 percent increase from 2014.” The biggest danger, however, is likely not the creepy man who takes photos with his low flying drone, but from any of an increasing number of drones that are being flown in airspace where traditional private and commercial manned aircraft are flying.  Now, regulators have announced that they will require private drone owners to register with the Federal Aviation Administration at the time of their purchase and will require some who have already purchased drones to register as well. The FAA has tapped a task-force to develop the new policies that it hopes to be able to implement by November 20th, in time for an expected holiday boom in drone sales.
Besides the obvious benefit of knowing who owns which drones, one aim of the federal registry will be to raise awareness among private operators of the rules of flying a drone. Registering a drone will require the owner to acknowledge their familiarity with the regulations regarding drone usage. For example, under federal law drone pilots must fly under 400 feet and not within five miles of an airport. Interestingly, the man flying his drone at the State Fair was not in violation of federal law, but state law. However, law enforcement still had safety concerns even though the Fairgrounds are not within five miles of Raleigh-Durham International Airport. “We wanted to find the person controlling it pretty quickly because if it had crashed it could have hurt a lot of people,” said Sherriff Harrison according to the Raleigh News and Observer.
Stories like the State Fair incident highlight the complexity and variety of the many problems that the rapidly growing popularity of drones causes for regulators attempting to protect the public while at the same time allowing the public to benefit from this new technology. On one hand regulation can hurt the growth of a popular industry. On the other side, however, worries about safety, criminal behavior, and privacy abound. According to Foxnews.com, “[t]he FAA now receives about 100 reports a month from pilots who say they’ve seen drones flying near planes and airports, compared with only a few sightings per month last year.” And North Carolina has not been exempt from these frightening close calls. According to the Triangle Business Journal, in August “the crew of Shuttle America 3313 reported spotting a drone at an altitude of 8,000 feet.” Thankfully, despite the dramatic increase in drone sightings, to date there have been no airline accidents involving drones.
Some innovative and knowledgeable drone advocates are coming up with technology that may succeed in making the skies safer while allowing drones to provide the kind of benefits they envision. One company that will be working on the FAA registration task-force is Raleigh-based PrecisionHawk, a drone developer. PrecisionHawk has been working on “virtual air traffic control” software called “Low Altitude Traffic and Airspace Safety Platform.” Unfortunately, it seems impossible to say at the moment if and when all drones in use will have such safety features installed. Furthermore, the FAA is still working out what drones will be covered under its new registration policy and it’s possible that the registration will apply only to larger drones and drones with high altitude flying capabilities.
As for the man flying his camera-armed drone over the State Fair, he has since also been accused of visiting a children’s playground back on September 11th, and the Sheriff’s office has obtained a warrant to look at the images on the drone’s camera to see what he was capturing on film at the Fair.