It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a… Drone?

Illustrations by Paige Vickers

The next time you’re in Prospect Park, look up at the sky and memorize how that wide expanse of blue is dotted with only the occasional cloud, warbler, or airplane. These next ten years might be the last before unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—or drones—take to the air.

Until recently, the drone market had been mostly the province of select military organizations, generally confined to the United States and a few European allies—kind of like the early days of the Internet—and these governments have already spent a few years using UAVs to patrol borders, scout property, locate fugitives, and, of course, to conduct “drone warfare” in the Middle East and along the Afghan border in northwest Pakistan.

But when you remove the combat artillery, size the drone down to less than the wingspan of an eagle, and repurpose the cameras, sensors, and processing power, you can manufacture a variety of practical drones that can aerially survey expansive crop fields, perform search and rescue operations, help track down poachers, and (Amazon hopes) efficiently deliver packages. For some, herein lie both the solution and the problem.

Drones have enormous potential to help society, but come with untested privacy and security risks and a litany of legal questions of first impression. Should there be a drone speed limit? What happens if a drone crashes into a person, causing serious injury, but the pilot is nowhere to be found? What if someone (like an insurance company) uses a drone to monitor you without your consent?

In New York City, council members Paul Vallone and Dan Garodnick want virtually all drones banned outright, except for cases that require police use. Right now, there are no specific regulations for local enforcement of drones in the city. (Larger drones possibly default into a section of the city’s administrative code that also governs balloons, parachutes and hang gliders. Officially, those can only be flown in designated areas; there are two in Brooklyn and Queens, and one on Staten Island.)

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But what about “microdrones” that weigh just a few pounds each? These lightweight aircraft, previously the playthings of a handful of hobbyists and professional photographers, have exploded in number as they’ve become more affordable, with some costing less than an iPod, and are in the same legal category as remote-control helicopters and other air toys.

Unsurprisingly then, the city has seen several drone-related incidents in the past two years, including an NYPD helicopter chase-down of a drone flying near the George Washington Bridge, a stunt gone wrong that ended when a fuel-powered remote-controlled helicopter killed a Brooklyn man, and a drone dangerously colliding with a Midtown high rise—all leading Senator Chuck Schumer to compare this city with “the wild, wild west” for drones and to call on the Federal Aviation Administration to establish drone regulations.

While the FAA already does have its own set of rules that apply to drones, one of the problems is that they’re not keeping up. For example, the FAA requires companies to apply for an exemption before being granted the right to fly drones for commercial purposes. In the tech world, the FAA’s case-by-case approval process seems to move at a snail’s pace: When Amazon recently received an airworthiness certificate for a specific drone model after almost a year of waiting, the delay was long enough that Amazon had already put that drone out to pasture.

To the FAA’s credit, the agency recently proposed new draft regulations that would allow for the commercial flying of drones within a range of restrictions: under 500 feet, no faster than 100 miles per hour, in daylight, and in the “visual line-of-sight” of the operator. On the plus side, this move quashed rumors that the FAA was going to require commercial drone operators to obtain a pilot’s license. On the down side, it may take the FAA up to two years to finalize these rules, and drone operators would still have to pass a test to get a permit that would need to be renewed every two years.

Although there’s no official hobby-drone training program at the moment, a Drone User Group Network in the New York City metro area has been teaching and promoting the “responsible use of flying robots” since 2012. It boasts over 1,300 drone enthusiasts (via Meetup.com), and offers regular meetings on everything from aerial photography to robotics to aviation. But with a drone as simple as the just-released “Lily,” essentially a flying camera that follows you once you toss it in the air, do you really need a training program? Do you need anything more than a battery charger?

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In the next decade or two, as drones become more versatile and more technologically advanced, it’s likely that they will also become as ubiquitous as today’s cell phones. And it’s not too big of a leap to imagine that our world will adapt to drones as irrevocably as it did to cell phones—ultimately even creating drone-only jobs, services, and time-saving mechanisms that we never knew we needed. So, when you look up in the sky a few years from now, it may not be a bird or a plane zooming across the blue, but a drone on its way to put out a forest fire or to deliver a pepperoni pizza on the double.

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