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Why Making People Register Their Drones May Just Create More Problems

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 20/10/2015 Alexander Howard
ATHENA IMAGE © Mark Wilson via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

 A day after the federal government announced its new plan to set up a system to register recreational drones in the United States, the proposal is running into some skepticism.

Members of the public and technologists may look at the tight timelines for creating a working registry and the unclear criteria for what constitutes a drone and wonder if Uncle Sam can really pull it off by the holidays. 

"For 80 years, the model airplane industry has successfully self-regulated itself," said EJ Duarte, the owner of U.S.-based drone manufacturer Thrust UAV. "Now, a lot of media attention draws a negative light. We are supportive of a registration effort, but you have to look at the logistics involved. So many people are buying consumer-grade drones that won't last a week. Do we need to spend tax dollars on this?"

Figuring out which drones are toys and which would need to be registered after they show up below Christmas trees in December will be up to a task force of government regulators and industry stakeholders over the next two months. In the end, that might end up being the easiest question to answer.

There are two possible lines for making the determination, Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, suggested to The Huffington Post: weight and use.

"The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) makes a big deal about commercial use or use by law enforcement," he said. "I'm much more comfortable with the requirement that corporations or startups or police or fire fighters have to register them, so there's some accountability for using public airways for commercial or civic use."

That's also the perspective of hobbyists and industry members who spoke with HuffPost this week: register and license commercial operators but establish a threshold for recreational or hobbyist use that doesn't encompass smaller unmanned aerial vehicles.

"Capability may be the right approach. What if something has a flight controller but doesn't do anything autonomously, with no GPS or sensors beyond what's used to fly?" asked Duarte. "Beyond that, that's definitely when it starts getting into a registry."

Some drone operators question whether creating a drone registry is feasible or wise, especially at this stage in their development. 

"Start with awareness and education campaigns, maybe endorse some training programs, or start a series of grants to get people certificates of safe flying," technologist Michael Doornbos, a pilot and drone operator, suggested to HuffPost. "You don't sit on your hands for six or seven years while this has been developing and then start with hitting everyone with a mallet."

Technical and privacy issues

If the FAA is able to get some help from the U.S. Digital Service and 18F to develop a database and a platform for third-party developers to build apps upon, it's conceivable that such a system might be set faster than the standard pace of government. 

Doornbos suggested that the FAA and Department of Transportation create a public prize to challenge the tech sector to come up with a cheap, effective approach to tracking drones. He's more than a little concerned that a rush to create a solution in government is going to result in a debacle.

"Ask any general aviation pilot or aircraft owner what a mess the required rollout of an automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast systems in aircraft is by 2020 and you'll get a sense of what this will create at a consumer scale."

A drone registry could also create privacy concerns, building yet another government database of sensitive, personally identifiable information that government agencies would need to protect. The hack of sensitive data at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management suggests that minimizing data is a strategy worth considering.

"One problem with a registry is that it almost always has more information than is needed," said Calo, who suggested that the government tread with care here.

"In the privacy community, we talk about bouncers not needing to see your ID, which has your birthday, address and other data. All they need is a verification, up or down, that you're over 21. What happens is we wind up having much more information than we need in order to address the problem. It seems to me that if we have a beacon that identifies itself as 'X, Y and Z,' it's sufficient to ensure that if a drone crashes or goes where it shouldn't be, it can be tracked. That would be better than a person attesting to buying a drone."

Secretary Foxx dismissed the idea of adding transponders to drones in yesterday's press conference, but that doesn't mean they're off the table forever.

Other approaches, like FAA mandating that commercial drones and consumer drones above a certain size or capability carry a black box, like the ones in airplanes, to log their flights would also add mandatory expense to the industry.

"The cost per drone goes up by order of magnitude, along with the infrastructure to support it as well," said Gene Robinson, the owner of Texas-based drone manufacturer RP Flight Systems, which works with law enforcement and emergency response agencies. "At best, that's couple of years down the road."

What about drone journalism?

Technical and privacy issues aside, there are also free speech and press freedom to consider. 

"Drones will be used to invade privacy but they'll be used to report the news and hold polluters and poachers accountable," said Calo. "We have to confront that the balance of civil liberties is not all in one direction."

This won't have any more negative effect on members of the media than registering a car says, Matt Waite, a professor who runs the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska, told HuffPost. 

"The only real effect will be that 'wink wink hobbyists' using them now might see a jump up in risk," he said. "There's a lot of people using them now for blatantly commercial purposes who aren't following the rules and the chances of them being held accountable for bad actions is almost zero."

Lisa Ellman, a former White House official whose law firm, Hogan Lovells, represents the National Association of Broadcasters, said that the First Amendment will be a key consideration in drafting government policies for drones use. 

"There are established rules for journalists that they follow when using a helicopter," she said. "I don't see why those should be different for drones: talk to law enforcement to make sure you get clearance and then give them space."

Striking a balance between risk and rewards

In our interview, Robinson highlighted positive uses of drones for public safety and humanitarian purposes that need to be supported.

"Drones are a tremendous resource management tool," he said. "You can do in 25 minutes what it takes 10 people all day to do to, in searching one square mile of territory. We have been flying since 2005 and never had an incident."

Robinson pointed to 10 recoveries of missing persons and his company's involvement in breaking up a human trafficking ring in Mexico.

The challenge for the FAA, Department of Transportation, the Justice Department and local law enforcement is that people who intentionally choose to use drones for criminal purposes are not likely to register them. 

When asked about the use of guns and drones during yesterday's press conference, the FAA administrator was clear: "It is illegal to drop anything or shoot anything from any aircraft operating in the national airspace system." (As Doornbos pointed out, however, FAA regulations permit objects to be dropped as long as they don't pose a hazard.)

That the question was even raised, however, points to a larger issue that comes up with most new technologies and humans. 

"Just as is the case with people who are bent on doing harm, in other contexts, if they're willing to harm people with drones, they'll also be willing to flout the registration required," said Calo.  "Whether it's building their own device or flouting the restrictions, this will not be a panacea."

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