If you got a drone for Christmas, are you ready to fly it?

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned us: drones were going to be an extremely popular present this Christmas, and soon there will be more than a million of these devices in the hands of mostly of inexpert users keen to start flying them. The security issues are interesting, to say the least.

There are dozens of models out there of varying quality, among them DJI’s Phantom, 3DRobotics’ Solo, and now even a Disney licensed Millennium Falcon. Most of the drones that will have been bought as Christmas presents weigh between one and two kilograms (1.2 kg in the case of the DJI, and 1.8 kg for the Solo with its stabilizer and GoPro camera) and can reach speeds of almost 90 kmh using nylon and glass-reinforced nylon helices driven by an 880 kV motor and able to travel up to 800 meters away from their base.

Any number of stories have made the media about the public’s use or misuse of drones, some more serious than others, others just plain stupid. If somebody invades your privacy, damages your property, or harms you with their drone, getting compensation could prove very difficult, given that the owner can simply abandon their drone and walk away.

The FAA has had to respond carefully to these sudden new additions to our airspace. Imposing Draconian rules on their use was never going to be an option: legislation needs to balance the interests of manufacturers, distributors and users with those of aircraft and helicopter pilots, along with those of the authorities of airports, fire and police stations.

As a first step, the FAA called a meeting of representatives of the different interested parties: pilots, police, DJI, 3DRobotics, GoPro, and distributors such as BestBuy, along with many others.

After three days of talks it was agreed that drones weighing more than half a kilo, up to 25 kg must be registered online (anything weighing more than this is considered a professional device and requires more complex registration). For the first month registration is free, after that, it costs $5.

It is also possible to register these devices with a serial number, otherwise a registration number provide by the FAA’s website must be clearly visible on the fuselage, for example, or in a place easily accesible without tools, such as the battery compartment. The FAA has created an app called B4UFly, which uses geopositioning to check whether there are any flight restrictions in the area. Flyers of unregistered drones face a fine of up to $27,500. Since December 21st, more than 180,000 people have registered their drones in the page.

As we know, laws do not prevent accidents, but the new measures at least establish a legal framework and a mechanism for establishing responsibility. Other countries will now be following the FAA’s lead. It remains to be seen if they are able to balance the interest of all the parties involved.

Applying existing legislation to model aircraft isn’t going to cut it with drones, which require much clearer guidelines. But the US authorities seem to have taken a sensible approach in facilitating easy registration free of red tape, while at the same time creating simple procedures to establish if drone users are obeying the law or are a threat to public safety.

Drones are a particularly interesting case for legislators: how to create effective legislation for a fast-growing craze that could have become a problem. We can only hope that other countries are able to respond in this way without overreacting.


(En español, aquí)

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