What, if anything, can be done about illegal drone activity?

I’m not sure if there’s just more of this going on or if the media is simply paying more attention, but by now you’ve probably seen all of the Killer Drone stories making the rounds. There were multiple instances of drones buzzing incoming passenger jets at Newark this summer, while others were interfering with firefighters battling the wildfires out west. And that doesn’t even being to scratch the surface of the growing problem where Mexican drug cartels are finding it far safer and easier to simply fly their merchandise over the border rather than risk having a mule carry them. (That’s a particularly clever one, by the way, since they can apparently link two controllers to the same drone so a new pilot can take over and land it once it’s in our airspace. And the profit from one successful load can pay for fifty replacement drones.)

Some of the people causing trouble are, perhaps, innocent of malicious intent and are simply ignorant of the rules. Some obviously are not. But there’s no denying we have a problem and the government thus far seems largely impotent in dealing with the volume. What to do? The editorial board at USA Today has a few ideas to offer.

More forceful action is needed. High-profile punishment of careless drone operators would make the point that breaking the rules isn’t cost-free. The FAA can levy fines of $1,000 to $25,000 and warns on its website of penalties of “up to 20 years in jail.” There seem to have been relatively few enforcement actions, though, and the FAA has no comprehensive list.

Granted, tracking a drone to its owner can be almost as hard as tracking the malicious idiots who shine lasers into airliner cockpits at night. But sometimes drone operators make it easy, by posting video online.

One drone operator did that in 2011 with a video he shot from a drone that buzzed the University of Virginia campus, flying near a heliport, under pedestrian sky bridges, and barely over the tops of cars and buses.

In 2012, the FAA proposed a $10,000 fine against the operator, which seemed appropriate. But three years later, after the operator insisted he had permission from local authorities for the flight, he settled with the FAA for $1,100 and no admission of any regulatory violation.

I’m not really opposed to anything that the editorial is suggesting here since it seems to cover more strenuous enforcement of existing laws paired with some possible new legislation, but at the same time I wouldn’t be terribly optimistic about the results either. More than anything this seems like yet another case where technology is advancing at light speed and our legal system can only move by donkey cart. There have been remote control toy planes around for a long time but they don’t seem to have been too much of an issue. They were really expensive and flying them was an art form which was difficult to master. (I watched a friend of mine destroy one that cost more than 500 dollars on the first day he took it out for a spin.) Also, they used to be entirely line of sight operated so the person controlling it was never far away. But now we live in the drone age and apparently the new generation of personal aircraft are so easy to operate that any idiot can fly one. And that’s precisely the problem. Idiots are flying them.

We’re dealing with two groups of people with some likely overlap here… the stupid and the sufficiently evil. The former crowd isn’t quite as bad because stupid people are easier to catch. But given the tens of thousands of these things being sold every year now that’s still a mountain of stupid to deal with when you have limited budgets and just so many agents to investigate. The sufficiently evil crowd is especially dangerous because with camera capabilities they can fly well beyond line of sight and if they are careful enough it may prove nearly impossible to identify and locate the pilot.

To be clear, I’m not arguing against enforcing the steep fines and possible jail time discussed above. That should at least send a message to the aforementioned idiots. But as with many laws, regulations like that tend to only impact those who tend to follow the law in the first place. Somebody thinking of a terrorist strike on a plane or moving vast quantities of drugs probably isn’t going to lose too much sleep over the possibility of violating an extra FAA regulation.

Anyone have any ideas? I hate to immediately resort to heavy handed government regulations mandating that no drones can be sold with cameras on board or some sort of limiters on altitude or range. Besides, the technology exists so that genie is pretty much out of the bottle. Clever people will figure ways to modify them and get around those limitations anyway. (Did you see the kid firing a drone mounted gun?) In short, how do we get law enforcement to catch up to the technology? I’m scratching my head on this one.