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.


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 the best way to sell their pitch to the FAA: by arguing that drones can replace manned aircraft for flights deemed high risk, thereby reducing fatalities. Manned flights for such tasks as pipeline surveillance, traffic observation, firefighting, and filming require precariously low speeds and altitudes. Not surprisingly, they tend to have relatively high accident rates: since 2003, according to NTSB data, they have led to an average of roughly 20 fatal accidents a year.

Drone technologies are nowhere near ready to be fully integrated into the United States’ complex civil aviation system.

West is right to point out that drones can bring safety benefits to sectors unconnected to aviation, mainly by allowing inspection companies to take “men and women off ladders.” Drone advocates should quantify such benefits to enhance their case to the FAA. Until they do, however, the FAA is right to remain cautious.

ROBERT MATTHEWS is a retired Senior Safety Analyst for the FAA.


As flying objects, drones pose three safety risks: they may crash, destroying cargo; they may unintentionally strike people or structures on the ground; or they may collide with other aircraft in the air. In her criticism of the FAA’s regulation of commercial drones, Gretchen West ignores these hazards. But accidents are inevitable. Commercial drones are small, light, and slow, making them particularly susceptible to turbulence, the strong and invisible vortexes that characterize wind near the ground. Whereas airplanes fly at high altitudes to avoid tumultuous winds, commercial drones are expected to fly down low—a recipe for disaster.

The FAA's Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, December 2007. Each red mark on the right-hand screen symbolizes one aircraft over U.S. airspace. 

West faults the FAA for its complex airspace regulations, which she blames for holding back the commercial drone industry. But such regulations, meant to keep aircraft from colliding, are complex by necessity: they must apply in many different contexts and keep as many people as possible safe. Near airports, for example, FAA rules prevent construction in the path of flight. Mistakes can be deadly. The FAA has implemented zoning ordinances around airports to prevent tragedies, yet all too often, construction begins before anyone realizes the danger.

Rules must be permissive yet stringent, friendly to drone operators but strict enough to protect people and property.

Creating rules for the low-altitude airspace in which drones operate is similarly daunting. The rules must be permissive yet stringent, friendly to drone operators but strict enough to protect people and property. There have already been incidents involving drone flights, both recreational and professional, and people affected by such incidents have written letters to the FAA. The agency must represent their interests—as well as those of the aviation industry—while also making room for private companies. This is not an easy balance to strike, which explains the FAA’s delay in drafting regulation.

West complains that the FAA’s rules and procedures have made commercial drone operators “jump through far too many hoops.” She finds particular fault with a rule, now relaxed, that operators must have a pilot’s license to fly drones. But there is legitimate rationale for such regulations: commercial operators should not be allowed to be ignorant of the rules governing the U.S. national airspace system.

The purpose of regulation is not to slow progress but to stymie bad judgment. Most aviation rules are written in blood; flying will always be risky. If commercial aviation feels safe and routine, that is because its regulations are created with great care and followed with professionalism. Drones need similarly well-thought-out rules and procedures. West argues that a “negligent drone user” could be held accountable through civil and criminal law. But better regulations will reduce the need for prosecution, nipping the problem in the bud.

DANIEL L. JOHNSON is a Senior Aviation Medical Examiner. 


Robert Matthews and Daniel Johnson write that in advocating less restrictive rules for drones, I have dismissed the FAA’s safety concerns. 

Although my piece did not focus on safety, everyone in the commercial drone industry agrees that it should be the number one priority. Manufacturers are working tirelessly to improve the technology so that drones can fly safely around people, buildings, and other aircraft—for example, by programming drones to recognize no-fly zones.

The industry also recently partnered with the FAA to create the Know Before You Fly educational campaign, designed to teach people how to safely operate drones. The campaign warns that drones should be flown no higher than 400 feet, for example, and should be steered clear of manned aircraft. As part of the campaign, the FAA announced the launch of a smartphone app called B4UFLY, which lets drone users know when they are cleared for takeoff.

A number of other safety initiatives have also gained traction. NASA is building an unmanned-aircraft traffic management system, a so-called highway in the sky, that will be able to monitor drone traffic and ensure safe flight. The system will also set up geo-fences around airports and near sensitive areas such as the White House. Meanwhile, many insurance agencies are aggressively researching and entering the commercial drone market and will likely set the bar higher for safety than even the FAA has.

As drones become ubiquitous, safety will become even more important. In May, the FAA announced that it had partnered with three companies to explore possibilities for the expansion of drone use in the United States. Through the partnership, the manufacturing company PrecisionHawk will use drones to survey crops in rural areas, CNN will research how drones can be used for newsgathering, and BNSF Railway will see if drones can be used to inspect rail infrastructure in isolated areas. The program, known as Pathfinder, marks a major step toward allowing for the broader operation of commercial drones.

True, the commercial drone industry has grown frustrated with the FAA’s glacial pace. But it would be wrong to portray it as opposed to sensible regulations that protect people and property. Working together, regulators and innovators can ensure that drones are integrated into the existing aviation system not just quickly but safely, too.

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  • ROBERT MATTHEWS is a retired Senior Safety Analyst for the FAA.
 DANIEL L. JOHNSON is a Senior Aviation Medical Examiner. 

GRETCHEN WEST is Vice President of Business Development and Regulatory Affairs at DroneDeploy, a provider of mapping and flight-management software for drones. From 2004 to 2014, she was Executive Vice President of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Follow her on Twitter @gawherry.
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