Harmless Drones Get Federal Flak

The FAA is throwing its weight around, not protecting the public.


In March 2012, volunteers spent four days looking for a two-year-old boy who wandered away from his home outside Houston, Texas. They found him only after volunteers reviewing images captured by a drone-mounted aerial camera saw a flash of red in a pond that had already been searched. It turned out to be a shirt worn by the child, who had drowned.

That was not the first time members of Texas EquuSearch had used these small model planes to help locate a missing person. But if the Federal Aviation Administration has its way, it won't happen again.

In February, the group got a letter from the FAA demanding that it stop using unmanned aircraft in search-and-rescue efforts, which it says violates its ban on the commercial use of drones. It's a perfect example of government regulators using imaginary problems to justify sweeping restrictions.

The agency fears that without its benevolent intervention, small drones will endanger commercial airliners, private jets and people on the ground. It is ignoring its own history, which indicates that tiny flying machines are no particular cause for worry.

Remote-controlled model planes have been around longer than the FAA, which was created in 1958. The International Miniature Aircraft Association has 155,000 members around the world.

Over the years, a handful of people have been killed in accidents involving these devices. But the FAA has never seen the need to regulate them. Its only gesture in that direction is a 1981 advisory encouraging "voluntary" observance of guidelines keeping the planes away from populated areas and airports, below 400 feet and clear of manned aircraft.

But with the advent of more advanced versions, the agency decided it could forbear no longer. In 2007, it decreed that any use of drones for commercial purposes is forbidden. Last year, it imposed a $10,000 fine on Raphael Pirker, who used a five-pound radio-controlled plane to take footage of the University of Virginia for an advertising firm. His supposed sin was defying its regulation against "reckless operation" of an aircraft.

If anything was reckless, it was the FAA's use of its power to enforce fictitious obligations in a manner that served no evident need. Pirker challenged the penalty, and last month, an administrative law judge told the agency to go fly a kite.

Pirker couldn't violate the rule against reckless operation of an airplane, said Judge Patrick Geraghty, because that rule doesn't apply to his machine. The agency, he noted, has always exempted model planes from regulation, and the "unmanned aerial system" used by Pirker was indistinguishable from those.

In asserting control over any "device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air," the FAA grossly overreached. By its logic, the judge marveled, launching "a paper aircraft or a toy balsa-wood glider … could subject the 'operator' to the regulatory provisions."

The only applicable FAA policy on drones and model aircraft is purely advisory, he said, and you can't be fined $10,000 for choosing not to follow its friendly suggestions.

The regulators' intrusion into search-and-rescue efforts is even harder to justify. In the first place, the 2007 decree against commercial use of drones has no relevance to a humanitarian organization that doesn't charge or accept payment for its work. Nor has anyone alleged that Texas EquuSearch flew its devices in such a way as to put bystanders in peril.

The FAA policy is tolerance for frivolous entertainment but not for life-and-death missions. You can play with a model airplane all you want, and the bureaucrats will leave you alone. But dare to look for a missing toddler, and there will be hell to pay.

A spokesman for the agency says that though it sometimes grants emergency authorization for search operations, nobody has requested one for Texas EquuSearch. That option, however, is available only to government agencies, and the FAA acknowledges it can take "a day or so."

Why should the group have to get approval to do something that offers considerable promise and does no visible harm? Why should a local police department dealing with an emergency have to waste time pleading for federal permission to do its job immediately with the best tools at hand?

In this instance, the FAA is throwing its weight around, not protecting the public. The next time someone wants to use drones for search and rescue, it should do us all a favor and go missing.

NEXT: Brickbat: Transparency in Police Work

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Don’t search for the missing children of FAA employees.

    1. Can you really punish the children for the sins of their parents?

      1. The federal government thinks it should.

        Just this year the SSA had the IRS keep the income tax refund of $4,500 due a woman because when she was 5 years old her family abused her fathers death benefit. That was 30 years ago.

        1. I would hope that individuals had a better moreal compass than the feds.

          1. *moral

          2. The Fed is comprised of individuals.

            She was 5 years old when the offense supposedly occurred. At five she cannot possibly be guilty of whatever her elders did. If they had robbed a bank would she be put in jail for it 30 years later ?

  2. There are two things about the government’s stance that you ‘libertarians’ don’t understand.

    1. Civilian drones might interfere with official government operations (including search and rescues). You wouldn’t want an official government search interfered with if *your* life was on the line, would you?

    2. Civilian operations undermine faith in the ability of government to protect you. Its a fething national security issue for chrissakes.

    1. Its a fething national security issue for chrissakes.

      Tanith fething first

      1. While Dan Abnett is a nice enough person in person, (and gets extra points for the annotation he added when signing my copy of Titan) I fear I just couldn’t get into the Ghosts. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s a weak (and slow) open on ‘First and Only’. Because that’s where I’m stuck.

        (I also followed through on my promise to give Heresy a chance. I gave it four warp-damned novels of a chance before the overwhelming weight of “I just don’t care what happens to these characters” made me walk away from it)

        1. The Heresy sucks in general. They’re trying to flesh out what was only hinted at background that in the ‘modern day’ of the setting is all legend and mythology with larger than life personalities. And not doing a very good job of it.

          As far as Abnett goes – I would recommend the Eisenhorn books.

          If you get a chance, check out the Commissar Caine books – Flashman in the 40th millennium basically.

          1. I would, but I already finished the Cain series, so I’m waiting for a new release there.

            My big problem with the Heresy is it’s taking over their product line, and got way too much attention at the convention. William King had a panel opposite their big Heresy to do, and the attendence was such that we were all able to sit in the front row. It ranked among the best panels there. (But I have to wonder if the greater proportional audience participation was a factor in bouying it. There was no vieing for a chance to ask questions or anyone pushing for a response wrap-up).

            Shame I can’t afford to go again this year.

  3. The agency fears that without its benevolent intervention, small drones will endanger commercial airliners, private jets and people on the ground

    The FAA has no jurisdiction over the ground. And so long as they don’t fly in the take-off or landing corridors for an airport (which is pretty much common sense) they are not going to endanger any other aircraft. At most a collision would have the same impact as a bird strike, so unless one gets sucked into the engine of a jetliner (again, only plausable in those takeoff/landing corridors) I don’t see the rationale.

    1. Ingesting 5 or more pounds of metal, plastic, and composite is a bit different than a bird. Bird strikes cause lots of damage, so the aviation industry takes preventing birdstrikes seriously, so I see no reason not to take similar strides with UAS.

  4. . . . small drones will endanger commercial airliners, private jets and people on the ground.

    Unless that ‘endangering’ includes scuffing the paint, I don’t see how a large airliner – designed to handle a birdstrike or two at a decent clip – is going to be more than inconvenienced by a drone-strike.

    And the case for injury to people on the ground – we already have regular laws that cover that, that don’t even involve the FAA. Let me run a toy helicopter into your face and then tell me there’s no existing mechanism to resolve the ensuing dispute.

  5. I’ve mentioned this before, but it would be simple to ban the drones from TCAs and give them a ceiling of 500 feet AGL. That would keep them clear of 99% of the traffic, including VFR. The FAA obviously has a pin in its ass over this.

    1. Of course they do – drones are set to be a big thing and the FAA (like any other regulatory agency) is scrambling to ensure that it has its claws in this.

      Every government agency will use any pretext to increase their scope and budget.

      FCC is trying to get its claws into the internet and cable.

      Tons of redundant programs administered by different agencies vying to be the *one* that gains control over the new policy area.

      Hell, the military has done (is doing) it with the scrambling for air, nuclear, space, and cyber-warfare roles.

      1. Fda and alcohol is another. For 40 years it had been ttb alone, but fda is weaseling in.

      2. FCC is trying to get its claws into the internet and cable.

        They’ve been into cable for years.

  6. A federal judge recently smacked down the FAA on this issue:


    1. A federal judge slapped down the FAA’s fine for a drone operator, saying there was no law banning the commercial use of small drones.

      Fuck the law. It’s our POLICY.


  7. Drowned kid. Didn’t need to start off the day with that image.

    1. Here, let me fill your mind with another image

      1. ****NSFW****

        1. Please, that’s only NSFW if you work in… actually I can’t think of a workplace. Even nuns would find that funny.

          1. Topless obese Men are never funny, they’re just gross.

            Topless women, otoh, are always sfw.

            1. Way to “other” the topless obese men fetishists in the crowd, asshole.

              1. Those people need to be othered. It’ll do them good.

    2. Just do like I did and imagine it being some FAA bureaucrat asshole’s kid.

  8. The FAA needs to be banned altogether. The excuse will be that planes will collide with one another more frequently. If all subsidies, security and intervention were removed from the airlines, these companies would have to bear the responsibility of operating safely, to ensure their business stays afloat. If there were increased dangers in regards to flying, individuals would look to other modes of transportation. But there would be no incentive to increase the number of crashes, or be lax on safety, as they would be out of existence and the responsible companies would get the business.

    With subsidies, some companies provide poor service and still get rewarded by money stolen from individuals through taxation (extortion). So no matter how horrid the service may be, folks simply can not opt out.

    1. Yeah, you can be so cavalier because you can transform into a bat and fly away. The rest of us aren’t so lucky.

      1. I must confess — I had never heard of Wesley Willis.

        Thanks, HM!

        1. Allow me to present his masterpiece, his magnum opus, his song of songs:

          I Whupped Batman’s Ass

            1. Johnson loves me
              Reagan adores me
              Sandy Koufax – shwiiit! – likes to throw fastballs at me

              Story of my fuckin’ life, man.

              1. Doo doo, doo doo, ….

      2. And if liberals got a hold of me they would attempt to clip my wings because of their jealousy of my flying abilities…and my sexiness too.

        But I know you’ve got my back. So I don’t do too much worrying, and just work on sharpening my fighting skills….and teeth. V””V

  9. I always find it humorous that the people who are professionals at nothing (career politicians) see themselves as the only people fit to do such a wide array of specialties exclusively

    1. Yep.

      “Professional” “broadcasters” often exhibit this trait as well — smugly proclaiming some egregious error while pretending to be an expert in the field.

      1. smugly proclaiming some egregious error while pretending to be an expert in the field.

        That is a Cliff’s Notes of every single Tim Cavanaugh article ever published. Except, possibly, the boring California transit articles he loved to write. I guess he could have had some expertise in that field. I couldn’t be arsed to care if he knew his stuff for that.

  10. By all accounts drones will be a huge industry. A huge industry is a profitable one. Profits need to flow to congressmen and senators. This can only happen if the industry is threatened by shutdown via regulation.
    Your drone service is a great idea, and, I can guarantee you a 10 year initial federal license provided you hire the senator’s good-for-nothing son-in-law as a senior management. Of course he’s not qualified, but he has no intention of showing up to work-he’s just going to drink and do coke in the corner office. Try to stay out of his way.

    1. By all accounts drones will be a huge industry.

      I expect it’ll give another, um, Bidenesque boost to the shotgun industry, too.

      1. If it’s over my property without my permission, I should be able to shoot it down*

        *assuming the ordinance used does not land on someone else’s property.

    2. Unfortunately, much of the industry is already set in stone – owned and made by the Chinese. Industry there is encouraged, not shunned.

      They win. Again. At least round one. And it’s hard to imagine much change since they are way ahead of us and Americans are scared to invest because of supposed illegalities.

      I don’t think the US Government is “evil” about this – rather big institutions move slow. That can be an advantage in many cases, but they should have a “fast track” when it comes to modern technology so we don’t strangle the up and coming industries.

      Sorry to say, though, a regular consumer drone could easily bring down a helicopter or a plane – probably even an airliner. Geese are soft. Some of the bigger drones are 5kg or so of largely Lipo (batteries) and metal motors with copper windings. Imagine that hitting a helicopter blade at high speed.

      Other probably know more, but think of a quadcopter basically as a rock. Would 5-10lb rocks hanging in the sky hurt things? Bullets and flak only weigh in the oz.

      1. “they are way ahead of us” Nope, hardly an indefensible blanket statement at all.

        Water is “soft” but hitting it at terminal velocity will kill you/wreck aricraft so comparing drones to geese in terms of potential damage to aircraft isn’t exactly analogous. Weight is only part of the equation when comparing drones to bullets and flak; velocity is just as important.

        All of that is ignoring that most aviation does not take place below 500 AGL. If drones generally stay below 500 feet and away from TCAs, there will hardly any, if any, drone/manned aircraft interactions.

        1. Way ahead in terms of value, price performance, manufacturing sites, actual operating companies and employees and most other metrics most might use.

          We have the smarts….which is why our research as well as our military drones are relatively up to date. But the consumer sector has not reacted anywhere near as quickly as the high end one.

          In the consumer/hobbyist drone space, we have DJI selling probably more than all the others put together. Chinese makers own 95% plus of the “toy grade” market through makers such as WL Toys and Walkera. Even quads developed by westerners are usually made in China – or most of their components are.
          There are a few exceptions but the numbers talk loudly. I have been studying this market for about 18 months – and it seems that 3DR is really the only up and coming US company in the consumer/hobbyist space.

          I’d be glad to hear that what is stated above is not true – and why? Go to amazon and search quadcopters and look at the brands and sales ranks.

  11. What is not mentioned here and probably closer to the truth is: This is an interim determination in lieu of the creation of the subdivisions of the FAA. These subdivision will include a licensing authority, office of inspection and of course the code enforcement division. Circumventing any of the aforementioned administrations will of course be met with heavy fines and or jail time.

    carry on.

  12. Now that sounds like some serious business.


  13. FYI, the biggest hobby drone maker (DJI) just programmed the “no fly” zones around airports into it’s brains. So at least that one may fade away as a danger.

  14. New Hampshire is poised to pass a law regulating drones.

    There’s this new thing that I don’t fully understand, we better rush to pass some laws. ’cause there’s nothing worse to a statist than a thing which is unregulated.

    1. Many of the so-called “free states” seem to be the first to want to regulate this stuff.

      I run into PC views on drones regularly. I recently wanted to do a free talk about the technology and when the organizer heard it was about “drones”, he shut me down. I did give him a bit of a talking to after that, but it was his show.

      Being “against” drones (aerial robotics) is like being against computers or fire. Sure, they all have their more negative uses….but I’d say that the positive uses trump those – plus, squashing of technology never works out in the long run.

  15. If flew R/C back in the 80’s. And Ultralights in late ’00. FAA loves to throw their weight around.

    Odd about not flying R/C near an airport. The airport I flew out of had an R/C field right under the downwind. They just get out of the way and stay low when a plane is coming in.

    1. Speaking of RC:
      “North Korean drones send shock waves across South”

      The claim is it was programmed rather than RC, but it looks like a muffled glow-plug engine.

    2. When you were into it, the hobbyists were much more skilled and a smaller set of educated and reasonable people.

      Now that you can buy models that are instantly ready to fly…people take to the skies without as much common sense as your group had.

      Pilots that belong to the AMA are much less likely, IMHO, to do the stupid things like flying over crowds, etc.

  16. what’s the point of this article after that recent ruling? The judge threw the FAA’s claims out, and that’s it; now the FDA has no power until they actually write some damned regulations.

    I think the author is overblowing it, the ruling solved this problem. When the FAA finally does write regulations, they will inevitably ALLOW the use of drones, but probably with just some registering before hand.

    1. Correct – in other words, our systems works. Even teh FAA cannot get away with making their own rulings unless it follows the law.

  17. Two points:

    1) About the FAA: to their credit, traveling by major, american airline is the safest form of transportation in the history of mankind.

    2) about their bullshit: others above have pointed out the natural desire of jackboots to get involved in everything, for their own and their agencies power. However, the other thing I think may come into play is the FAA’s relationship with pilots. I smell an attempt to preserve obsolete jobs. “You used a drone to fly this SAR? Why the hell wasn’t a pilot (and his plane/chopper) hired for big$ per hour? The drones: they took our jaaabs!”

    Extra credit: do we need regulations to protect our privacy from drones, either private or government; or can the free market handle the issue by itself?

    1. I was contemplating a move into the helicopters but was talked out of it by several folks in the know as they expect a large amount of the work currently done by helicopters to be completed by drones in the next decade.

    2. I agree. It’s a foolish thing to advocate getting rid of the FAA and our system…which, due to it’s regulations, has created “happiness” in the form of both the safety and the reliability of air travel.

      Every time one of us flies we should thank the FAA….as well as engineers and all the others involved in these amazing machines.

    3. The free market can handle the privacy issue, although I think it’s smart to give private property (homeowners, for instance) a certain amount of airspace for them to own. In other words, right now they own none. Perhaps they should own up to 100 feet.

      We have a local guy here who flies tours in a real helicopter – he has a stabilized camera on board which takes pictures of boats, among other things.

      He sells the pics online – you can find your boat by the hull # or name. In other words, civilian technology has long existed to take MUCH better pics than drones can.

      Also, consider big cities – someone in a tall building cn use zoom lenses to see much more than most drones can – in terms of into an apartment or office or even to the street.

      Common sense should rule. Perhaps the most pressing issue with small drones is the danger of flying them above people and cars. These problems will soon be solved by technology (failsafes, parachutes, air bags, etc.)…..until then, flying them where they present a danger to humans should be verboten.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.