By: Arianna White, Associate Staff
As a child, I spent many afternoons with my father and his two helicopter-enthusiast brothers. We would go to the park and launch remote controlled helicopters and rockets in to the sky. We flew the large, complex kind of helicopters that could drop packages from great heights and do flips while in the air. Although craft helicopters are less in vogue today than they were twenty years ago, other small-scale flying devices have recently returned to popular consciousness. I’m talking, of course, about drones.
When thinking about drones, many people imagine their military application. Otherwise known as predator drones and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), these machines are used to perform precise strikes of enemy targets. The use of these drones relies on information gathered by intelligence agencies to identify targets, and a remote operator who controls the drone’s movements.
Beyond their common conception, however, the term drone refers to a larger class of Unmanned Aircraft Systems that have both public and private applications in the United States. Many Police departments, like the New York City Police Department, use drones to survey the public under the pretext that drones are intended to “check out people to make sure no one is… doing anything illegal.”
Corporations and personal enterprises have also determined that drones can serve in varied, but important roles. Amazon, for example, is interested in using drones for package delivery and has asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for permission to develop and test a drone program. While the FAA has yet to issue the necessary license to Amazon, the company persists in its request that the agency permit its use of drones.
Mexican drug cartels have also developed drones to deliver packages, although their program follows a decidedly less legal route than Amazon’s. On January 19, 2015, a drone carrying nearly six pounds of methamphetamine crashed in a Mexican city along the Mexico-US border. In early 2015, a South Carolina man received a fifteen-year prison sentence for his attempt to deliver contraband to a South Carolina Prison. The crashed drone carried marijuana, cell phones and tobacco on to the prison’s grounds, although the delivery was never received by any of the prison’s inmates.
Given the proliferation of unmanned aircraft, both sophisticated and home made, the FAA lacks a sophisticated policy that effectively regulates their use. While the “current FAA policy allows recreational drone flights in the U.S.[, it] essentially bars drones from commercial use.” Although industry analysts expected the FAA to publish its proposed rules by the end of 2014 and begin the notice and comment period, the agency did not meet that goal. In fact, Gerald Dillingham, the GAO ‘s director of civil aviation said that the “consensus of opinion is the integration of unmanned systems will likely slip from the mandated deadline [and not be finalized] until 2017 or even later.”
During the 112th legislative session, Congress passed the FAA Modernization Act of 2012. The act was designed to, among other non-drone-related purposes, “encourage the acceleration of unmanned aircraft programs in U.S. airspace.” Agency guidelines, in place since 1981, currently control the use of personal unmanned aircraft. Of these, individuals are prohibited from “flying above 400 feet, near crowds, beyond the line of sight or within five miles of an airport.” These types of guidelines seem reasonable and appropriate to regulate small scale, personal model aircraft and drone use.
However, there is a glaring need for federal policy that addresses and regulates the commercial use of drones. In the absence of such a policy, local governments have begun to fill the gaps that the FAA left behind. According to the New York Times, “At least 35 states and several municipalities have introduced legislation to restrict the use of drones in some way.” These different laws serve various functions, including governing the permissible police uses of drones, defining what type of use constitutes unlawful surveillance, and determining the punishments allowable for violations of the particular law. By allowing individual local governments to determine their own rules, in the absence of a federal standard, the FAA has missed the opportunity to both promote nationwide responsible drone use and ensure their safe, uniform use across the country. While other countries, like Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom have already begun enacting laws that allow commercial use of drones, the United States is still stuck in 2012.
 Federal Aviation Administration. Unmanned Aircraft Systems. https://www.faa.gov/uas/.
 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/07/sunday-review/things-to-consider-before-buying-that-drone.html, http://www.faa.gov/uas/publications/model_aircraft_operators/