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The FAA Has Finally Realized Drones Aren’t Going Away

2015 made drones boring, and that's good.

by Jason Koebler
Dec 29 2015, 12:00pm

Image: Miki Yoshihito/Flickr

A flurry of lawsuits, high-profile attacks on consumer drone pilots and their machines, and overzealous Federal Aviation Administration policing made 2014 a highly interesting year to be following drone news. The conventional wisdom was that 2015 would be more of the same, but here we are staring down the new year and, looking back, I can't help but yawn.

That's probably a good thing. After making life extremely miserable for anyone who wanted to fly a drone commercially in 2014, the FAA seemed to back off this year, creating legal methods use drones to make money. The agency didn't suddenly open its wide bureaucratic arms in a warming embrace to the technology, but it did, at the very least, acknowledge that drones aren't going away anytime soon.

And that made 2015 quite a boring year in terms of big headline drone news. At the beginning of the year, all indications were that the FAA was going to continue to villainize the technology: In March, the FAA went after a drone hobbyist for posting his aerially shot videos on YouTube, claiming that it was a "commercial" use of the tech.

Drones have become just another piece of technology that normal people use without batting an eye

The FAA quickly backtracked on that free-speech infringing idea, however, and a representative for the agency told me this week that the agency is no longer sending out formal (and legally dubious) cease-and-desist notifications to businesses and hobbyists who fly in a manner the agency doesn't like.

Likely, this is because the FAA is finally letting companies fly drones commercially without having to jump through too many legal hoops. The agency has issued more than 2,600 "Section 333 Exemptions," which are essentially commercial drone permits that can be obtained through a relatively simple petition process.

As 333 exemptions became more common, the drone headlines got increasingly boring. There were certainly more drones in the sky this year, as far as I can tell, there were no big drone-related assaults (though a parks service ranger did tase a drone pilot back in April), no police helicopter-drone chases, and no attempts by the FAA to take down nonprofit search-and-rescue organizations.

Instead, the big news this year was a relatively ho-hum drone registration program implemented by the FAA on short notice. (The jury is still out on how onerous, annoying, effective, and secure the system will actually be.) Other headlines: The FAA fined a commercial drone operator for $1.9 million for unsafe flying and drone hobbyists interfered with California wildfire-fighting efforts.

It finally seems like both the pilots and the agency tasked with keeping drones in check have found some common sense

Beyond that, the biggest news is really the FAA's general inaction: There's still no official small drone regulation, which is long past the Congressionally mandated September 30, 2015 deadline. Would-be commercial drone pilots once spent most of their waking hours clamoring for this rule, but with 333 exemptions, no one seems to mind all that much that the FAA is taking its sweet time in finalizing the official regulations.

Even when you move away from the highly riveting world of federal regulation, the story doesn't get all that much more interesting. Amazon teased its drone delivery service; though we still have no idea when it's actually coming, we do know that the company wants its own dedicated drone airspace. The DJI Phantom 3 and the 3D Robotics Solo both got released and both seem fine and popular, but neither appears to be totally changing how people actually fly drones.

Let's see, what else. We went FPV racing with some expert flyers in the Bronx, then staged a drone dogfight in a Brooklyn warehouse. Both sports seem like they have bright futures but neither has really hit it big in the mainstream yet. More would-be anti-drone weapons were announced, though we still haven't seen any in action. Ethan Hawke starred in a pretty bad drone movie. Anne Hathaway starred a pretty good drone play.

A local judge ruled that you can't shoot down drones that fly over your property, then another local judge in another state ruled that you can. No federal court has bothered with the issue yet, though shooting at a stranger's drone is certainly illegal. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions of people at this point, continue to fly drones more-or-less peacefully.

And that's really the story of drones in 2015: They have become just another piece of technology that normal people use without batting an eye. If I asked you how people used smartphones this year, you could probably rattle off a few major events, some good and some bad. But was it an eventful year in the way humankind used the smartphone? Nah, not really. Same with drones. Which is good, because it finally seems like both the pilots and the agency tasked with keeping them in check have found some measure of common sense.