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Congress on Drones: Big Business Wins, Hobbyists Lose

Congress's new line? Commercial drones good, hobby drones bad.

by Jason Koebler
Mar 25 2015, 1:00pm

Ed Markey ​Screengrab: YouTube/EdMarkey

​The drones are coming, the drones are coming, the drones are here. But then again, they've always been here. Hobby use of model aircraft predates the Federal Aviation Administration and has never been regulated—don't expect it to last.

I've been watching Congressional drone hearings for three years now, and I've noticed a gradual but distinct shift. In the past, it was "commercial drones are good, but privacy is complicated." Drones used by companies to deliver packages, film movies, or survey crops were seen as a technology full of potential, but problematic to implement. Hobby drones flown for fun were ignored. 

Well, politicians have found their scapegoat: Now, it's "commercial drones are good, hobby drones are bad and dangerous and creeps might fly them."

This is a dangerous development.

Granted, ​Tuesday's hearing was in the Senate Commerce Committee, a body that has a vested interest in helping businesses get what they want, or at least in helping the economy grow. 

But it also seems to me as though many of the lawmakers there have created three players: The safe, homegrown American business who is going to Create Jobs and Innovate; the drone small business owner who is going to pull him or herself up by his or her bootstraps; and your jackass creep neighbor who is going to spy on you sunbathing, fly their drones at jetliners, and fuck it up for everyone.

Here's Senator Cory Booker, who, during the hearing, was hailed on Twitter and among drone enthusiasts I pay attention to as being one of the most pro-drone Senators at the hearing:

"​The White House drone—was that a commercial vehicle? The airplane problems we've had with people flying close to airplanes, were those commercial vehicles? Have any of the sensational, salacious, exciting drone things that have shown up in newspapers happened because of Amazon?

We need to distinguish between commercial operations and private use. We have a problem with private use, I was happy to see my colleagues bring up private use, but the commercial usage, that's not an issue.

It seems like when it comes to government moving at the speed of innovation … we are slowing this country, where innovation is going on in other countries, we are falling behind."

I don't want to pile on Booker. Throughout the hearing, he pushed for reasonable, quick regulations from the FAA for commercial users. That's an important and needed thing, considering that there are no regulations right now, the FAA is enforcing its authority seemingly at random, and, he's right, other countries are leaving the US in the dust as far as what is allowed and what will be allowed in the future.

That said, throwing hobbyists under the bus is a short sighted and uninformed opinion. It's absolutely true that there are people who fly drones recklessly, and it's true that there are creeps who want to use them to spy. It's true that people buy drones online, power them up, and ​go fly them in crowded areas with no training and little regard for the damage they could do. But those people make up a tiny percentage of the overall drone and model aircraft community, and a blanket ban or strict regulations on hobby flight probably isn't the answer.

In fact, banning or highly restricting hobby flights is likely to backfire. Those who are creating the small businesses that lawmakers want to exalt started out as hobbyists. The best in the hobby have been doing this since they were kids and are designing the innovations, ​such as first person view flight, that are big business today. The tech geeks who used to do this on the side now have drone startups. The very best pilots are going to make money in ​NASCAR-style drone races or filming movies for Hollywood studios or, maybe, delivering packages for Amazon.

"It's important to recognize that the overwhelming majority of private unmanned aircraft users are responsible, and in fact, we all agree about the importance of innovation," John Villasenor, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, testified to Booker. "Many of the innovations five and 10 years from now commercially are going to come from the people who are hobbyists today, so it's important to recognize the needs of that community as well."

That brings us to the elephant in the room, which is standing on a suitcase full of cash

Congress did that with the ​FAA Modernization Act of 2012, the law that required the FAA to spell out commercial drone regulations. In that law, Congress specifically ordered the FAA to continue regulating hobby use the way it always had: By not regulating it at all.

"Congress gave us clear direction to allow model and hobbyist kinds of operations without more restraint," Margaret Gilligan, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety testified.

Other Senators seemed miffed that Congress had done such a thing. Ed Markey, or the robot he's gotten to repeat the same canned SPIES IN THE SKIES speech ​he's been doing for years now, didn't disappoint with his now-standard call for more laws. Brian Schatz asked who gave the FAA the ability to regulate the airspace, and who said it was cool to fly in people's backyards (For the record: ​Congress, and ​the Supreme Court, respectively), and seemed incredulous that the FAA would "preempt local decision makers from making choices as to where recreational drones are allowed."

Dividing drone use into "hobby" and "commercial" use with a bright red line hasn't really ever made sense. We've seen the definition itself get sticky before. The FAA started with this distinction because, if you're going to make money with something, you might take a risk that someone who is just doing it for fun might not. But that's not a rule, and it's impossible to say who is really engaging in risky behaviors.

Companies can be, and very often are, creepy. Hobby pilots can be safe, and vice versa. And saying that companies inherently fly safe doesn't make sense, either.

"When you look at the huge number of non-commercial drone users (at least several hundred thousand) versus the significant (but not huge) number of commercial operators in this country (probably around 5000), it becomes impossible to say who is safer in general because the number of incidents has to be reconciled with the frequency of operations," Brendan Schulman, a drone lawyer who is also a hobby pilot, told me in an email. 

"A non-commercial user doesn't have financial incentives to put people in danger," he added. "A commercial user might, but also has a business reputation on the line as well as expensive equipment at risk."

That brings us to the elephant in the room, which is standing on a suitcase full of cash. In past hearings I've watched, there were safety concerns and privacy concerns associated with drones, but they were always framed as concerns with domestic drones, not hobby drones.

Over the last year or so, at least four lobbying firms have set up specific drone shops. Amazon and Google have lobbied Congress on drones, in addition to the military contractors of the world, who ​would like to eventually find commercial uses for their massive aircraft

There's the Small UAV Coalition, which includes Amazon, Google, GoPro, along with 13 other companies (some of which sell or rely on the continued existence of hobby drones), ​which spent $220,000 on lobbying last year. Powerhouse lobbying groups representing realtors, broadcasters, and farmers have also pushed on drones, ​Open Secrets notes.

So, there's no question that lobbying money has begun to stand up for those who want to fly drones commercially. The question is, who will stand up for those who want to continue to do it for fun?