Editorial: Make Aerial Imaging Drones Safe and Legal

Drone photography is here to stay, whether the government likes it or not. That’s one of the messages from an intriguing roundtable discussion piece titled “Those Daring Photographers and Their Flying Machines” in an upcoming issue of Shutterbug magazine. In the story, written by Lorin Robinson, three experienced imaging drone pilots share their thoughts on this controversial topic, in what amounts to part “state of the drone industry” and part call to arms. In the short span of time that imaging drones have transitioned from expensive, occasionally dangerous novelty devices to safer, lighter and relatively inexpensive mainstream tools, we’ve seen the debate over their legality hit a fever pitch.

While the FAA banned the commercial use of drones in 2007, the US Congress ordered the agency to come up with a plan for “safe integration” of drones (aka Unmanned Aircraft Systems or UAS) by September 30, 2015. What that plan will include is anyone’s guess but the FAA’s own website says the proposed ruling “will likely include provisions for commercial operations.” Or, in other words, there will probably be a pricey and time-consuming permitting process put in place but there could be a path to legality for small imaging drones – under approximately 55 pounds – by late 2015.

Of course, commercial drone use by photographers is already happening under the FAA’s radar. And with only minimal resources for enforcing the ban, it will continue to happen, which is part of the reason the government wants “a piece of the action,” and Congress wants to trumpet all the new jobs the commercial drone industry will generate. As evidenced by the spectacular aerial images captured by a growing group of photographers now flying imaging drones, legalized, commercial UAV use will open many new opportunities and dramatic visual points of view.

But there are still major, legitimate concerns with these flying weedwackers, particularly relating to airline safety. There have been at least seven incidents since September 2011 where pilots have reported close calls with what they presumed to be UAS. The number of hazardous and potentially hazardous incidents between drones and the general public has been far greater. In one of the more publicized episodes, a man in New York City was arrested when a drone crashed into the window of a building near Grand Central Terminal, and fell 20 stories to the street, nearly hitting pedestrians. You can see the scary footage of the crash here.

That’s why we support legailized rules and restrictions for commercial drone use rather than an outright ban, which will only encourage rogue pilots, anxious to get their “killer” footage without getting caught, to attempt risky aerial maneuvers. Imaging drones may be here to stay, but let’s keep their use safe and above board.