Were you surprised by that?
No. I’m not surprised considering the significance of the outcome and the language of the decision. I think the decision is completely correct, but I’m not surprised to learn that the agency is unhappy about it because it overturns a seven-year-old commercial ban that the agency has relied upon to constrain people from operating commercial drones. I should add that in addition to issuing the 2007 policy statement, the FAA followed that statement with cease-and-desist letters to various commercial operators such as aerial photographers. So for years, the FAA has said both directly to private companies and also in various media sources and press coverage that flying a model aircraft or drone for a business purpose is illegal.
Do you think it’s accurate to say that there are some commercial drone operators who are able to continue their work without coming to the attention of the FAA?
People make their own decisions in all kinds of legal contexts, and this is one of them. I think it’s pretty clear just from keeping an eye on the industry that people are using drones for commercial purposes.
How truly stifling is the FAA’s position on commercial drone operation? Is it more of a nuisance? Or do you feel that the FAA’s position is really tamping down on an industry?
The latter. I think the agency’s position really is restricting the development of the industry in this country. Although it’s true that there are some small commercial operators who have nonetheless gone ahead and done commercial projects. I think it’s difficult for larger organizations to get funding for these projects and to move forward with doing things that are highly visible because of the threat of some unspecified regulatory enforcement. I think it’s had a tremendous chilling effect. I can give you one example: The Discovery Channel was, about a year ago, filming a pilot episode for a new reality show, and my understanding is that the producers wanted to use a drone to shoot video of the actor in the desert, in a location far away from other people, in a safe environment in terms of people on the ground. The producers were informed that drones were not permitted to be used for commercial purposes, so they opted for a helicopter instead. And the helicopter crashed and killed three people.
So part of the story that’s not getting told is the good things that the technology can do in terms of making things safer. Every year, there are people who fly helicopters near power lines and infrastructure to inspect them and the tail gets caught in the wire. Or you have someone on a cellphone tower who climbs up and then falls. Every year, there are numerous fatalities that result from these dangerous manned aviation operations. And if we can improve safety by using small drones that pose no threat to life if something goes wrong, that’s a net improvement to aviation safety that even the FAA should support and be in a hurry to put into place.
If the FAA finally clarifies its position, and the industry is allowed to flourish, do you think there could be a safety issue in terms of just too many drones in the sky?
In my opinion, most of the work that will be done by drones will be at low altitude in controlled environments: movie sets, agricultural fields, and around power lines and buildings being inspected. It’s unlikely there will be so many drones operating at the same time and in the same space that there will be that issue.