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Monday, January 11, 2016

Are Drone Advocates Losing the PR Contest?

Advocates for less stringent U.S. regulation of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) might be losing the struggle for public opinion, if newspaper editorials since registration went into effect are any indication. 

Newspapers large and small have said the risks small drones pose to other aircraft, to the privacy of people on the ground and to national security justify the FAA’s registration requirement as well as limits on the use of such aircraft.

The FAA on Dec. 21 required operators of new small drones (those weighing a total of more than 0.55 lb to fewer than 55 lb) to register them before first flight. Those who owned such drones on that date have until Feb. 19 to register them. 

The rules were based on what, at the time, were called unanimous recommendations of an industry task force. One of the task force's groups, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, said afterward that the FAA registration rule “does not include our advice” and was implemented over the group’s objections; it has urged its members to hold off on registering their aircraft until Feb. 19. 

That academy argues that the registration rule may violate congressional restrictions on the regulation of small drones, and at least one operator is suing the FAA on that basis, spelled out in Section 336 of 2012’s FAA Modernization and Reform Act. 

The modeling academy has long used a registration system for its 175,000 members, who include the more responsible operators of unmanned aircraft. But their responsible conduct in marking and operating remote-controlled aircraft is less visible to the public and the press than the actions of their irresponsible counterparts, judging by editorial page opinions. 

The New York Times’ lead editorial Sunday noted the recreational and commercial benefits of small drones, but noted such aircraft “can also be used to snoop on people and harass them. And they can threaten other aircraft.” The editorial board concluded “many Americans will be skeptical” of small drones “unless safeguards are put in place guaranteeing safety and protecting privacy.”

Skepticism also is found among other national news outlets.

The Times-Call of Longmont, Colorado, titled its Dec. 23, 2015, editorial, “Registering drones will elevate safety.”  

On Dec. 28, The Omaha World-Herald noted that the economic opportunities of drones abound, but so do their personal and national security risks, saying “people, property and other aircraft need some restrained federal help to corral the swarm” of small UAS.

The Jan. 3 editorial in Madison County, Indiana’s Herald Bulletin raised the terrorist potential of small drones, commenting that law-abiding citizens are apt to register while “the bad guys will get their drones on the sly.” The newspaper concluded, “Perhaps the registration requirement will at least make it more difficult to secure a drone without documentation for those who would misuse them.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an editorial the next day said “registration will not be enough to deliver safety in the skies” and called on federal regulators, commercial aviation and the military “to work with the drone industry on ways to keep small fliers from bringing down planes and jets.” That newspaper pointed to a Dec. 24 Washington Post report that, with small-drone sales skyrocketing, military officials fear the risk of a midair collision with a drone is increasing and are "worried about the potential for an aviation disaster.” 

In Huntington, West Virginia, The Herald-Dispatch’s Jan. 4 editorial opined that ignorance of air safety practices among new small-drone owners “means the potential for havoc in the sky has grown exponentially.” It noted that a local air medical operator, HealthNet Aeromedical Services, had reported several midair close calls with its aircraft, concluding “those who own a drone should take the responsible steps of learning the safety rules and registering their unmanned aircraft.”

Editorial concerns about small drones aren’t unanimous. The Ocala, Florida, Star Banner on Dec. 26 called the registration rules the biggest overreaction “since Rudolph’s shiny nose got him excluded from reindeer games.” It concluded, “The current regulations merely put a damper on fun.”

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