Today, the FAA formally announced plans for the registration of small unmanned aircraft (UAS), better known as “drones”. The new laws apply to any UAS weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (approx. 25 kilograms) including payloads such as on-board cameras. Effective December 21st, all owners of qualifying drones are required to register them with the FAA. Failure to comply may result in civil and criminal penalties. Registration includes a $5 fee, which will be refunded for all registrations submitted before January 20, 2016.

Reaction to the FAA plan has been mixed. Many understand the need; some see it as unnecessary governmental intrusion, especially hobbyist pilots. All should focus on that last word: pilots. Plain and simple, that’s what drone operators are: pilots.

Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft enthusiast are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely. Im excited to welcome these new aviators into the culture of safety and responsibility that defines American innovation.

Historically, RC aircraft have not always required registration, but two things have changed that: ubiquity and cameras. Before DJI reinvented the market, RC aircraft were mostly gas-powered, fixed-wing planes which the average consumer could not afford to build and fly. With the original Phantom, DJI made battery-driven quadcopters accessible, affordable and easy to fly. And, they added cameras.

Cameras changed everything

No longer were RC aircraft only of interest to aviation buffs. Now, the devices had intriguing applications for art, commerce and surveillance. As a result, the market exploded and drones became fairly commonplace in skies across the country. Too often considered a toy, they ended up in the hands of people who flew them without fully understanding the risks. Here are just a few examples of near misses by inexperienced or irresponsible drone operators:

  1. Drone Crashes into Hot Springs in Yellowstone
  2. Drone Crash Injures 11-month Old Baby
  3. Drones Interfere with Efforts to Fight Wildfires
  4. Drone Hits Groom in Head During Wedding Shoot
  5. Drone Lands on the White House lawn

The casual reader may think me “anti-drone”. I am not. I own a DJI Phantom and am considering upgrading to a DJI Inspire. A close friend owns several large octocopters designed to fly cinema cameras. I love drones. They democratize and economize the capture of sweeping, cinematic shots in a way never before available to photographers and cinematographers. They are the very definition of “disruptive” technology; in mostly positive ways. But, I know first hand the risks an inexperienced operator can take with their own safety and the safety of others.

While shooting a film in Iceland, I brought my Phantom to capture the epic landscapes and glaciers for which the country is best known. I did not have many hours at the controls and what few I had were earned in the remote Nevada desert. During my first Icelandic flight, I went up in too much wind and the drone tipped and crashed; breaking three rotors. Out in the Icelandic backcountry, there was no one around to injure.

A few days later, with new rotors in place, I did an initial test flight in the front yard of our apartment in downtown Rekyjavik. I took the drone up 10 feet and she held stable. 20 feet up. Stable. 40 feet up. Stable. At 80 feet up, I started moving left to right in a small, tight test pattern. On the third pass, something rattled loose and I lost control. The drone veered hard away from me and over a public park. Then, it tipped over and dove out of sight behind an apartment building.

As I chased it, I was not thinking of lost investment in the drone. All I could think of was the swarm of kids I saw playing in that park the afternoon before. I have two small kids. I was terrified. Rounding the corner, I let out a sigh of relief to find the park empty. It was a school day. I found the drone in pieces, but I did not care. No one had been hurt.

Was the drone manufacturer responsible? No. In fact, DJI and other manufacturers are being very proactive in building “flight fences” into their products which use onboard GPS to restrict where they can fly. No. It was operator error. Putting that drone up in the air, within the city limits, was irresponsible of me. I did not have mastery of required skills and the drone was untested after a recent crash.

It was all on me.

I understand the impulse to dismiss FAA regulation of drones as unnecessary overreach. But, it simply isn’t. HAM radio operators require a license because the public airwaves are just that: public. The same holds true for public airspace.

There are other concerns that merit FAA licensure, not the least of which are personal privacy and the possibility of bad actors using dangerous payloads (e.g. guns, bombs). But, the simplest and most obvious reason is preventing crashes due to unskilled operators.

We don’t let unskilled operators drive cars and motorcycles on public streets. We should not let unskilled operators fly aircraft, no matter how small or seemingly innocuous, in public airspace.

It really is that simple.

Photo Credit: DJI Inspire 1 Drone by DFSB DE