- - Monday, December 1, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A bird in flight is a thing of natural beauty; a drone overhead, not so much. A drone does not leave an organic souvenir on a windshield, but it nevertheless evokes an uneasy feeling in the imaginations of aviators. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to issue rules this month regulating the use of drones. There are legitimate safety measures regarding the use of drones that can set the public’s mind at ease — the sky is a big place but the space in it is not infinite — and the skeptical see signs that the FAA may follow the bureaucrat’s inevitable instinct to err on the side of Leviathan. It shouldn’t.

A small Midwestern brewery aired a clever television commercial not so long ago depicting a drone airlifting a case of beer to a thirsty football fan in the stands, and entrepreneurs have since explored the commercial possibilities of such deliveries unimpeded by traffic on the nation’s highways. The FAA shot down the idea of a beer drone and what it represents, and banned drones for commercial purposes while it studies the prospects for commercial drones.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the FAA is considering onerous rules. Among them is a requirement that a drone operator must have a pilot’s license, fly his drone in daylight never higher than 400 feet, keep the machine within sight at all times, and keep it three miles away from stadiums. To the thirsty fan in Section 44, this Bud is clearly not for you. Since achieving a private pilot’s certificate can cost $9,000 or more, qualified drone pilots would be scarce, indeed.

Business is familiar with what happens when Washington bureaucrats sharpen their pencils and scratch out a new book of rules. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who floated the idea of delivering books, DVDs and other Amazon products by drone, has moved his research and development facilities to Britain to escape the expected regulatory overreach. The company has posted job offerings there for engineers and software developers. Google will develop its drones in Australia. Smart money flows toward freedom, not excessive regulation, and the FAA is driving away jobs.

Safety of the skies is paramount, of course, and rules are necessary. “The thing that we are most concerned about is to ensure that any aircraft in [the sky] does not come into conflict with one another,” Michael Huerta, the administrator of the FAA, tells CNN. Since June 1, airline pilots have logged near-hits with drones at least 25 times. A fan was hit in the stomach by an out-of-control drone at an Alabama-Mississippi State football game.

With nearly a half-million recreational drones sold in the United States during the past three years, the need for safe operation of a flying machine with powerful spinning propellers is clear and obvious. Trimming the flight path of a drone, especially the small helicopters that can hover controlled by remote-control joysticks, requires hours of practice.

The law enforcement use of drones with cameras for aerial surveillance and private citizens spying on neighbors is a concern, which states have begun addressing on their own. Privacy must be protected.

Federal rule-writers often forget where and when to stop regulating. When the FAA finishes its new drone regulations, we hope they won’t apply to pint-sized models from the toy store. Making outlaws of children trying out their favorite gift in the backyard on Christmas morning would be making a regulator of Ebenezer Scrooge — before he saw the light of grace.


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