Drones, laws and innovation

Enrique Dans
May 18, 2014 · 3 min read

The falling cost and concomitant widespread availability of the technology required to make drones means we are heading toward a legislative impasse involving at least two problems: on the one hand, there are obvious risks involved in the commercial use of these devices that will obviously require laws. On the other hand, the application of overly conservative legislation, created in an age when this technology simply didn’t exist or was not widely available, could endanger the development of an infinite number of uses, along with that of any number of innovative industries to support them.

It is interesting to compare the respective responses of the US and Spanish governments to establishing the legal frameworks for technological development. In the United States, the airspace used by drones, below 120 meters high, was not regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Which is why Raphael Pirker was able to successfully appeal against an FAA fine for flying a drone recklessly while filming at the University of Virginia.

The verdict, which implied that the FAA had not expressly prohibited the use of drones, led the organization to appeal in turn to the National Transportation Safety Board, which then immediately slapped a ban on drone flying until a firm decision was reached on their use. However, the FAA now looks set to fast track procedures that would allow for the commercial use of drones, thus preventing the law from becoming a brake on innovation; this at a time when a growing number of people within the media and content industries are saying that overly conservative legislation on the use of drones could be a threat to the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of expression.

Meanwhile, in Spain, AESA, the State Agency for Air Safety, has just published a four-page document making it clear that the commercial use of drones is not about to happen any time soon. They can only be used for recreational use, and in areas set up for aeromodelling. Their use for professional purposes is directly forbidden. For many industries, such a response, based on laws when drones were largely inaccessible, banning their commercial application is a disaster, and one that many people have described as narrow-minded and short-sighted. It now looks as though nothing will be done until the matter is decided by the European Parliament, which seems disposed to toughen the requirements required to operate drones.

This is obviously a complex issue. A free for all situation whereby a drone could fall from the sky operated by somebody without the necessary qualifications is unacceptable. But to simply regulate the matter using laws from another age does not seem the best way to stimulate innovation in our societies. As innovation speeds up, countries looking to the future need to find ways to apply the law accordingly.

The conclusion seems clear enough: any delay on the development of technology that makes use of the open spaces will delay a country’s ability to compete. When entrepreneurs in one country are prevented by overly conservative legislation from putting their initiatives into practice, all that happens is that entrepreneurs in other countries with a more flexible approach to innovation take the lead.

The emerging sectors and activities generated by innovation provide opportunities, something that in Spain, a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the developed world, cannot afford to miss. In this sense, drones are simply an example; an example of an attitude.


(En español, aquí)

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

    Enrique Dans

    Written by

    Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

    Enrique Dans

    On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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