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Cory Booker's Commercial Drone Bill Is Good for Big Business, No One Else

The bill would criminalize flying a commercial drone without a license, which might be something only big businesses can afford.

by Jason Koebler
May 12 2015, 4:47pm

Image: Kevin Baird/Flickr

Senator Cory Booker has introduced a bill that would, in theory, make it easier for commercial drone pilots to fly legally in the United States.

The bill was rumored for months, and it's no surprise that Booker, who gave an impassioned plea earlier this year to the Federal Aviation Administration to stop messing with would-be commercial drone operators, would introduce this legislation. Whether it actually does any good is another question altogether.

The "Commercial UAS Modernization Act" creates a set of interim rules that would go into effect before the FAA finalizes its commercial drone rules, which is expected sometime later this year. Booker's bill would create a new set of hoops for drone businesses to jump through, however, and would immediately ban many smaller or individually owned drone companies from flying.

Right now, commercial drones are operated in a legal grey area—Booker's bill would make a black-and-white distinction: Fly for money without a license, face civil fines.

His bill requires any commercial drone operator to show proof of insurance, register their drone with the FAA, and pass both a written and practical test that demonstrates a knowledge of aviation. Finally, the model of drone someone wants to fly commercially must be tested at a test site before it is certified to be flown.

Drones would be subject to the same general voluntary restrictions they're subject to today: They couldn't be flown higher than 500 feet above ground, would have to stay within line of sight of the operator, and would face additional restrictions around airports.

This is great news for big real estate companies, the Boeings of the world, big Hollywood studios, and others who have plenty of money to navigate these regulations. And, in the long term, it's probably not that big of a deal for drone pilots to get some sort of license.

Thing is, Booker's rule is more strict than the one the FAA is actually proposing. The FAA's rules, once enacted, don't require that anyone actually notify the agency that they're flying. It also doesn't require insurance or any sort of knowledge or practical flying test. The rules basically state that if you fly safely, you're fine. That's not what Booker's bill would do, however.

There are hundreds of drone businesses owned by one random man or woman in rural Maine or Kansas or Maryland or wherever. There are students who use drones to take footage for their student films and then end up selling it later. And there are people who operate all over the country perfectly safely who would very easily fit into the FAA's proposed restrictions—which took far too long to be developed and come out, yes—which looked very reasonable once they actually surfaced.

Booker's bill, meanwhile, specifically mentions criminalizing the use of commercial drones that don't fall under his more strict regulations and specifically mentions that there will need to be "reasonable fees" associated with the registration process.

At the moment, there are only six test sites in the entire country where someone could get their specific make of drone certified to fly. Again, not a problem if you're Yamaha or DJI, but a huge problem if you're a tinkerer who lives in Los Angeles and needs to get to North Dakota just to get your homemade drone certified.

Drones in the United States have created hundreds of self-owned small businesses with one or two employees, and many of those businesses are growing quickly.

The industry still has the very real chance to be one that's not entirely dominated by big business. Booker's bill, however, looks very much as though it's one designed to help the major players get a head start on the small guys, who will suddenly have to wait for the FAA's real rules to go into effect.