A high-level federal government official admitted today what business owners and hobbyists have realized for a while: There's no good way for the Federal Aviation Administration or any other government agency to stop the proliferation of drones, and it's probably "impossible" to police them all.
What a difference a year and some change makes. This morning, the House of Representatives' Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing to discuss drone regulation, and it had a distinctly different ring to it than many I've watched in the past. The representatives not only didn't bring in some tiny drone to demonstrate to their colleagues what it was, ask dumb questions about Predators, or spend two hours fearmongering. Several of them openly talked about owning or wanting the things themselves.
I've got a quadcopter on my Christmas list, as I expect quite a few other people do
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina) said he's probably already broken the law by flying his drone.
"I violated a federal law by taking pictures of a golf course," he said. "I think there was probably more danger of someone getting hit by a golf ball than someone getting hit by the drone."
The FAA has missed most every deadline that Congress has set for it to establish an easy way to fly a drone commercially. Meadows and his colleagues were just as frustrated by the holdup as small business owners and corporations such as Amazon—or at least, frustrated on their behalf.
They're not seeing progress, and the FAA continues to inch along at a "geological timescale" in making rules, according to Kentucky's Thomas Massie. In the meantime, no one's waiting for them.
Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) said he'll soon be a drone owner, and that lots of other people are about to be, also. How the hell is the FAA going to police these?
"I've got a quadcopter on my Christmas list, as I expect quite a few other people do," he said. "We've reached a point where we've got to wonder—is the cat out of the bag?"
"Is it even feasible to enforce the rules?" he asked Gerald Dillingham, Director of Aviation Issues for the Government Accountability Office, which is overseeing the FAA's implementation of commercial drones.
"It's going to be a difficult or almost impossible task," Dillingham admitted. "The FAA already has so many calls on its resources. I think we have to worry about education for the public, and when they see individuals being fined, that'll be one of the incentives [to not break the law.]"
But the point Farenthold and many other lawmakers made is that, well, it's very difficult for anyone to know what the law is right now.
"Let's say I put a GoPro on my drone and fly at my friend's ranch. I'm perfectly legal at that point. Then, I post it to my blog that has Google ads on it. Have I crossed into the grey area of commercial use?" Farenthold asked Dillingham. "That's a lot of fine line distinctions to have to educate the public about."
"That's a fine point, sir, I can't argue with that," Dillingham shot back.
And that's where we are right now. The FAA's Peggy Gilligan, who works in the agency's aviation safety branch, was constantly on her back foot during the hearing. She didn't have many answers for when anything would get done, when a rule would be out and implemented, or what formal regulations would even look like. She parroted lines the FAA has pulled out for years—that it's important to get these rules right, that it's complicated, that it would be disastrous if a drone struck an airplane, and that regulations in other countries are an apples-and-oranges comparison to the complicated US airspace.
She and the agency are right on that, of course. It is a complicated task. But someone has to figure it out—and quickly. Because companies both big and small aren't waiting. Amazon is threatening to take its research and development dollars overseas, as Google has already done. Small companies are flying anyway, hoping for a safety-in-numbers approach.
"Things move at internet speed now. Silicon Valley gets stuff done in weeks, not years," Farenthold said.
Washington DC is a long way from Silicon Valley, but it’s going to have to find a way to move at something resembling a normal pace or be forced to deal with whatever happens when tens of thousands of tech nerds open up a drone under their Christmas tree and aren’t given any guidance about what the hell they’re allowed to do with it.