Recreational drones need to be regulated


There’s something wrong with recreational drones.

You can see the attraction. They can be extremely easy to fly, and they take cool pictures. The Consumer Electronics Association forecasts about 700,000 will be sold this year, up from 430,000 in 2014 but far fewer than the 1.1 million sales anticipated for 2016. Some are tiny flying toys. Some weigh more than 50 pounds and still count as “recreational.”

I think I speak for all of us when I say that we do not want to get in between a child and his ToyJoy F8 Space Trek RC Nano Drone. But it’s absolutely crazy that the bigger ones capable of flying in the same airspace as a helicopter aren’t being licensed and strictly regulated.

Every day there seems to be a new story. A drone flew over the Oklahoma State Penitentiary this week, carrying a bundle of drugs and hacksaw blades dangling from a fishing line. Fortunately, it crashed before any inmates could grab the loot.

The Federal Aviation Administration is getting about 100 reports of close encounters with passenger planes every month.

How can something terrible not happen sooner or later? “From the California point of view it’s only a matter of time,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the sponsor of the Consumer Drone Safety Act, which is at this point still just a proposal. Feinstein’s office has chronicled a number of cases in which planes and helicopters attempting to put out wildfires were forced to pull back because of drones in the airspace.

When recreational drones came on the market, Congress regarded them as a version of model airplanes and told the FAA to keep its hands off. Model airplanes do have a relatively problem-free history. This is possibly because they’re difficult to master, and someone who will go to the trouble of learning how to fly one will probably not do anything incredibly stupid.

But some drones don’t require much more skill than opening a box. And the incredibly stupid issue is extremely important.

The FAA has some authority over commercial drones, but on the recreational front there’s not much it can do unless Congress gets its act together.

Right now, the FAA and the Transportation Department are working on a drone registration program. Ideally, the registration system would make owners aware there are rules governing where they can fly, although there’d apparently be no way to guarantee they had actually read them.

And it’s already illegal to fly a drone near an airport, but almost none of the violators have ever been caught.

These things need to be identifiable, even when they’re in the air. And their owners ought to be required to take a safety course and get a license before they fly. You shouldn’t be able to go on the Web, make three clicks and – with no training – buy a product that could threaten public safety. That’s only true for drones. And of course, in some states, handguns.

Gail Collins writes for the New York Times.