FAA issues initial drone rules and they don't look good

So what are we going to do about the drones? No… not the ones flying over ISIS and AQ encampments and blowing up the terrorists. Those are doing fine, thank you. But how about the ones that smart, wealthy kids are flying over your swimming pool? Will Amazon be delivering your new smart tablet to your front door with a drone? What about small businesses who want to use them for aerial photography or local package delivery? The FAA has finally weighed in with an early set of proposed rules which will soon be open for public comment.

Drones can begin flying low over the American skyscape by 2017 under rules proposed Sunday by the Obama administration that will finally allow their legal use for business purposes.

The rules, which still need to go through an extensive public comment phase, apply to smaller drones weighing 55 pounds or less. Such small flyers aren’t likely to share airspace with manned flights.

“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”

The proposal is largely favorable to the thousands of businesses who want to use drones for photography, agriculture or inspection purposes. While there was discussion of requiring licensed drone pilots to have time flying in a manned aircraft — a potentially expensive proposition — pilots will instead have to pass a written test at an aviation training center. The FAA rejected the idea of offering the tests online.

There are so many issues with what the FAA is proposing, depending on where you stand on the whole “drones in my neighborhood” thing. First of all, the rules seem entirely geared toward businesses, not private use. But this technology will clearly be of interest to private flyers. And even for businesses, the restrictions seem daunting. The altitude ceiling is set at 500 feet which will present obvious problems in large cities. Far more dismaying is that the drone will have to remain within the line of sight of the operator. We’re already at the point where tiny cameras can be installed allowing the drones to fly to the extent of their battery range, but this would effectively keep them within a few hundred yards even in rural areas when combined with the height restriction. They are also saying that night flights are banned and the drone can’t carry any “external weight.” I’m not sure what that means, but if you can’t attach cameras or baskets to carry small cargo, you’ve effectively neutered their usefulness for anything but surveying.

Aside from the obvious but debatable privacy arguments (they may see you sunbathing) it’s unclear how “dangerous” a drone flying at less than 500 feet would be to air traffic. And unless somebody is trying to strap a tiny bomb to one, how much damage will they truly be capable of? This is only the opening gambit from the FAA, but it looks excessively restrictive to me. Perhaps there is room to grow from there, but it’s a starting point which seems to cripple a promising industry before it gets out of the gate.