It’s no secret that the United States may be losing its edge in civilian aviation. Nowhere is this more apparent than with small unmanned aircraft, those tiny flying robots that promise to transform agriculture, forestry, pipeline monitoring, filmmaking, and more. While many other countries are racing to develop and use such drones, U.S. innovators remain more or less stuck on the starting line, mired in federal indecision and red tape. At the recent Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference, at New York University, one speaker imagined what would happen if the Wright brothers were to face such restrictions today: Moments before takeoff, a black Chevy Suburban would pull up, federal agents would jump out, and they would halt the ill-conceived experiment for safety reasons.
While such intervention seems oddly reasonable today, government safety mandates are now being extended to astonishingly small scales. In 2007, the Federal Aviation Administration declared [PDF] that small flying contraptions, even those the size of your hand, are considered “aircraft” and therefore require a Certificate of Authorization if they are flown outside for anything other than recreation—even if they hover just an inch above the grass. One high-level policymaker conceded that tossing a paper airplane for research or educational purposes would technically require FAA approval.
So it’s no surprise that many other countries, including Brazil, Canada, China, France, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and Switzerland, are moving ahead of the United States in civilian drone use and development, the most rapidly growing sector of civil aviation. These nations are capitalizing on the emergence of new technologies, building patent portfolios, and creating high-tech jobs that a decade ago would have been located in the United States.
What is surprising, though, is that these regulatory restrictions are also exacerbating privacy concerns. This is because when federal aviation regulations limit what people can do in their backyards and neighborhoods, it implies that citizens are now living within, rather than below, public navigable airspace. This becomes a radical proposition when the aircraft at issue are the size of Frisbees.
If all this sounds far-fetched, consider that the FAA already allows hobbyists to fly camera-laden model airplanes low over other people’s property without their knowledge. The resulting video recordings are increasingly posted on the Internet, where they are public, permanent, and searchable. What happens when paparazzi, private investigators, and even companies like Google get in on the action? You don’t have to be a privacy activist to find the prospects unsettling.
Fortunately, there’s a straightforward solution: Keep public navigable airspace exactly where it’s been for nearly a century now—hundreds of feet above our heads. This would leave landowners and local communities firmly in control of their backyards, neighborhoods, farms, and towns. Such a policy is also consistent with the landmark Supreme Court case United States v. Causby, which found that landowners “must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere.”
This framework would ensure a far more human world, one where small drones are just tiny flying contraptions, not FAA-certified aircraft with the public right of transit over our tulips. These fascinating new tools could then be used where landowners and local laws allow, safely below navigable airspace and out of the way of full-size aircraft. This solution would give innovators some air to breathe and put the United States back in the game as the world begins the second century of civilian aviation.
This article originally appeared in print as “Gasping for Airspace.”
About the Author
Paul Voss is a mechanical engineer and atmospheric scientist in the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass.