The government's crackdown on drones isn't only confusing the heck out of consumers, it also threatens to kill dozens of companies who have been in business—legally—for years.
The Federal Aviation Administration might not like the crop of drone companies operating directly against its wishes, but its recent decision to attempt to limit certain types of drone activities (most notably first-person view flights, where an on-board camera allows the pilot to fly at long range) is already hurting drone manufacturers that have operated legally for decades, completely on the up-and-up.
While it might be a grayish area to start an aerial photography business, it's certainly not illegal to sell the drone itself; dozens of companies worldwide have been doing it for quite some time now. It's not illegal to fly a model aircraft, but last month, the FAA suggested that it might soon be illegal to fly in first person view (FPV) mode, which is the fastest-growing and perhaps most useful part of the hobby.
That's put companies who make the technology necessary to fly in FPV mode in a tough spot. Tim Nilson, owner of Lumenier, which makes drones, FPV monitors, flight controllers, video goggles, and cameras, says he's lost lots of customers since the FAA said it's going to try to outlaw the practice.
"We've had customers who specifically canceled orders because they said they didn't want to spend $500 on goggles that they might not be able to use," Nilson told me. "People are asking me if they should be worried about the FAA, and you don't want to tell them to not continue with the hobby, but I don't know what to say to them."
If the FAA's interpretive rule goes through, there's little doubt that Nilson's company, and lots more who specialize in FPV, are going to go under.
To put up a fight, Nilson, along with nine other drone and FPV manufacturers, retailers, and community groups, has formed the FPV Trade Association—essentially a lobbying group to show the FAA that their actions are causing real harm to legit businesses. He says the overall business supports hundreds of employees around the country.
The group has retained Brendan Schulman, a drone lawyer in New York City who has already beaten the FAA in two court cases and is a drone pilot himself.
Nilson says his company alone has tens of thousands of customers, and some of the other companies in the group have just as many. But, until now, they haven't had much of an organized voice. Until recently, the Academy of Model Aeronautics—a model aircraft group that's 170,000 people strong—didn't even condone FPV flights. The AMA has since come out as an official supporter of the FPVTA.
"It's not the main focus for the AMA. My goal is to put the companies together who have a stake in this and tell the FAA that, if they do this, jobs will go away, taxes will go away," Nilson said. "The FAA is trying to pull the rug out from under us, and it's quite shocking. We don't want to be renegades or advocates for unsafe flying—there's a lot of people who execute this hobby safely and responsibly."
The FPVTA isn't the only group the FAA has riled with its interpretive drone rule.
Last month, Peter Sachs, one of the more outspoken drone lawyers out there, launched the Drone Pilots Association, a group of commercial drone operators who are trying to raise enough money to mount a legal challenge to the FAA's proposed rules. So far, more than 1,200 people have signed up.
Meanwhile, more than 28,000 people have submitted public comments to the FAA opposing its move to ban FPV and severely restrict where and when you can fly a drone. The FAA may eventually enact tighter drone restrictions anyway, but the people who love flying (and make money doing it) aren't going down without having their say.