JASON REED / REUTERS A small drone made by DJI innovations at a demonstration at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International exhibition in Washington, D.C., August 2013.

Fear of Flying

Are Drones Dangerous?


Gretchen West (“Drone On,” May/ June 2015) argues that the growing U.S. drone industry “faces a major regulatory obstacle” in the form of the Federal Aviation Administration. She’s right that the agency needs to make some basic decisions about how to regulate drones—and soon, lest the United States surrender its technological edge. But she is unfair to the FAA, too easily dismissing the agency’s safety concerns and wrongly suggesting that its caution is little more than regulatory Luddism.

In fact, the FAA’s caution stems largely from the volume and complexity of the U.S. aviation system. According to my analysis of data from the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United States oversees about 110,000 takeoffs a day, accounting for some 30 percent of worldwide commercial airline departures and more than 75 percent of the world’s general aviation.

The FAA faces two contradictory demands: get out of everyone’s way, yet make sure that nothing goes wrong. When it comes to drones, something could go wrong: drones could collide midair with commercial aircraft or hit people or property on the ground. West dismisses the risk of midair collisions with a passing reference to “geo-fences,” which drone operators can use to set up boundaries for their flights. Drone technologies have come a long way, but they are nowhere near ready to be fully integrated into the United States’ complex civil aviation system.

West treats the on-the-ground risk even more casually. She laments that the FAA prohibits the flying of commercial drones over people, limiting drone operations to unpopulated areas. But this is a legitimate rule, meant to keep people from harm. The same rationale explains why the FAA has long restricted the operation of commercial aircraft within 500 feet of people and why pilots must observe more stringent regulations in busy airspace.

There is a case to be made for drones, but West and other drone advocates are missing

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