Are non-military drones flying into regulatory quagmire?

Unmanned drones aren't just for the armed services anymore -- everyone from environmentalists to real estate agents are using them. But regulations restrict their use, and more regs are on the way.

In the photo above, Damon Wolfe, a geodesist with the US Army Corps of Engineers, launches an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from a boat on Florida's Lake Okeechobee. While airborne, the UAV (aka drone) photographed a wide area over the lake, and the Corps could then use the photos to track the progress of various plant species at the lake.

It's a great application of a technology with huge potential. And it's one of many novel uses of drones that have cropped up in recent years. As the structural components, software controls and sensors that go into the UAVs have become more widely available, they've entered the land of do-it-yourself kits. In fact, the website DIY Drones offers tutorials, forums and open source software to get you going. It's what two ecologists I recently wrote about used to create a drone to help them conduct wildlife research in Sumatra.

But as The Economist recently covered in its Technology Quarterly, as UAVs glide into more civilian hands, they're also gliding into a regulatory realm of increasing complexity.

Thus far there's just one hard and fast rule in the United States: civilians may only use drones for non-commercial applications. This rule was enforced, the magazine notes, when real estate agents in Los Angeles were banned from using drones to take aerial photographs of properties they were selling.

But it's easy to imagine that as drones become ever smaller, cheaper and more accessible, the skies could get a little crowded, not to mention dangerous. In both Europe and the U.S., lawmakers have been holding hearings and drawing up regulatory frameworks in the hopes of making drone-filled skies safe.

The U.S. Senate approved a bill last month that would require the FAA to draw up new rules for drone users. But the task is a daunting one, and the magazine calls out a bevy of questions and conundrums. One of the FAA's main objectives is, of course, to keep UAVs from colliding with each other or with other airborne objects. Anti-collision technology is available for UAVs, but it's expensive and complex. Given the areas where UAVs are often used -- say, just above a jungle canopy, or cruising low over Lake Okeechobee -- these sense-and-avoid systems "may be overkill," the magazine notes.

Still, there are some very basic safety standards that seem necessary, such as a protocol for malfunctioning UAVs that would prevent them from plummeting from the sky and onto, say,  a crowded highway.

And then there are the many questions and implications for public privacy, should there one day be all kinds of eyes in the sky, jettisoned by police, private investigators, or even paparazzi. The American Civil Liberties Union is already raising these questions.

Via: The Economist

Image: Flickr/John Campbell

This post was originally published on