A drone is flown for recreational purposes as an airplane passes nearby in the sky above Old Bethpage, New York, on Sept. 5.

A drone is flown for recreational purposes as an airplane passes nearby in the sky above Old Bethpage, New York, on Sept. 5.

Three years ago, Congress passed a law that made it illegal for the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate civilian drones. The law was intended to encourage business opportunities for unmanned aircraft. In the years since, sales of recreational drones have exploded. This holiday season, as many as one million could be sold. But airline pilots say near misses with drones are becoming too common. And earlier this year, a drone crash landed on the White House lawn. Under pressure to respond, the FAA announced this week it will require recreational drone operators to register their aircraft with the federal government. Diane and guests discuss new regulation of civilian drones and what it means for the safety of our national airspace and individual privacy rights.


  • Anthony Foxx U.S. Secretary of Transportation
  • Marc Rotenberg Executive director, Electronic Privacy Information Center; professor of information privacy law at Georgetown University Law Center
  • Rebecca MacPherson Transportation attorney, Jones Day in Washington, D.C. and former assistant chief counsel for international law, legislation, and regulation at the Federal Aviation Administration (2004-2013)
  • Craig Whitlock Reporter covering the Pentagon and National Security, The Washington Post
  • Richard Hanson Director, government affairs, Academy of Model Aeronautics


  • 10:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. This week, the Obama administration announced it will require civilian drones to be registered with the federal government. The move comes after several high profile incidents of drones crash landing in public spaces and near misses with airplanes. The FAA estimates nearly 1 million drones could be sold this holiday season.

  • 10:07:22

    MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about new regulation of unmanned aircraft, Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, former FAA counsel Rebecca MacPherson, now of Jones Day, Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post and Richard Hanson of The Academy of Model Aeronautics. But first, joining us from his office here in Washington, D.C., transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx.

  • 10:07:53

    MS. DIANE REHMSecretary Foxx, welcome to the program. Tell us why you thought it was important to announce the formation of a taskforce on drones right now.

  • 10:08:06

    MR. ANTHONY FOXXWell, as you point out, Diane, and thank you for having me today, we have seen an exponential growth in the use of unmanned aircraft or drones in international airspace and, unfortunately, there are many people who make use of drones who don't know that there are rules in place for how you move an aircraft in that space and we believe that the taskforce is going to be important because as we require registration, there are all kinds of questions about making sure we both educate the folks out there, but also make sure the rules are sensible and easy to use for consumers.

  • 10:08:45

    REHMWho's going to be on this taskforce, Mr. Secretary?

  • 10:08:51

    FOXXWell, we'll have a range of stakeholders represented, including folks from the airline industry, like the Airline Pilots Association. We'll have modelers on there, folks that are in the hobbyist category. We'll have industry -- hopefully, some manufacturers of drones will join the stakeholder group as well. We want to get a wide sweep of the folks that are potentially affected by this so that we can make the best possible decisions.

  • 10:09:20

    REHMTell me exactly how registration is going to work with so many -- I mean, people estimate hundreds of thousands of drones out there. How are you doing to register people?

  • 10:09:38

    FOXXWell, that is one of the questions that the taskforce is going to help us answer, but essentially, the idea is that we would create a portal and users would go online or register to put their information up. The information would be part of a central database and we try to make it as user-friendly as possible, as I said, but one of the big problems we have with drones today is that it's very difficult to connect the drone itself to who's using it.

  • 10:10:12

    FOXXAnd we've had many incidents where a drone has fallen out of the sky and it's been very difficult to backtrack that drone to who actually used it. This will help us close that gap and provide us one more additional tool in the toolkit to enforce the rules we have in place.

  • 10:10:28

    REHMBut, of course, you're asking those who already have drones to voluntarily register. When you buy a drone now, it may be different, but if you've already got one in your possession, how are you, at the FAA, going to make sure that people do register?

  • 10:10:55

    FOXXWell, again, one of the questions that the taskforce is going to help us answer is precisely that question about folks that already own drones and whether there should be a grace period for them to get signed in. But let me just be very clear. There are penalties associated with failing to register. There are fines and there's also threat of criminal sanction as well.

  • 10:11:18

    REHMBut why didn't you do this earlier as opposed to sort of after the fact? Now, you're gonna have to go track down people who perhaps already own them, but who don't want to register them.

  • 10:11:39

    FOXXWell, look, I think there's a lot of reasons. First, the growth in the group of consumers that are buying drones has just been beyond what anybody expected at the outset. But more importantly, there's a long tradition in our country of having a very relaxed environment around hobbyists as they use different things, from model rockets to model airplanes. The difference here is that while there isn't as much skill required to get one of these drones into above 400 feet of airspace, once you enter into the national airspace, you have the potential to interfere with other users in that space.

  • 10:12:23

    FOXXAnd, unfortunately, so many of the users don't know the rules of the road already, and so we think that this registration is going to have a great side benefit in that it's going to expose people to those rules and I think we're going to see a lot more compliance as a result of having this registration in place.

  • 10:12:39

    REHMSo how about enforcement? Who's going to be in charge of tracing drones that do violate airspace?

  • 10:12:49

    FOXXSo, again, as we experience people who violate the rules of the road, so to speak, having the registry will help us trace that drone back to the actual user of that drone. And so this is going to enhance our ability to enforce above and beyond what we can do today.

  • 10:13:10

    REHMSo a lot of people, Mr. Secretary, are concerned about privacy. Is the FAA planning to address that issue?

  • 10:13:24

    FOXXI believe the taskforce will discuss that issue. The purpose here is one that has long been part of the FAA's mission. Planes have to be registered. This is not something that is foreign to folks that use the national airspace. The difference here is that we have heretofore treated these drones like model rockets or any other kind of hobbyist device and they're different in some ways and we're going to have to wrestle with how to treat these a little differently than we've been treating other hobbyist devices.

  • 10:14:01

    REHMAnd, of course, many of our listeners want you, Secretary of Transportation Foxx, to define drone.

  • 10:14:13

    FOXXYeah. Well, that, again, I think it's fair to say that this taskforce will look at whether there is a category of these devices that doesn't pose a threat to the national airspace. And to the extent that we're able to lock in an definition that holds water, you can expect there to be some exclusions of things that will not have to be registered. But that, again, is some of the work we're going to ask the taskforce to help us with.

  • 10:14:40

    REHMAnd what about the possibility of an unregistered drone being sucked into the engine of a plane? How are you going to deal with that possibility?

  • 10:14:55

    FOXXWell, we have a lot of things that we're doing as an agency to insure the safe integration of drones into the airspace and so I don't want your listeners to think this is the only thing the FAA or U.S. Department of Transportation is doing. We have a small UAS rule that is in the process of being finalized. We hope it gets done in the first six months of next year, that will lay the foundation for commercial use of drones, which I think is going to be the dominant use of these devices.

  • 10:15:27

    FOXXYou will also see us, and you have seen us, allow categorical exclusions that actually are allowing some of those commercial uses today. This is just another step along the way of integrating and we have other steps that are being contemplated to assure ourselves that we're being as safe as possible. But I'd like to save time to make those announcements later.

  • 10:15:49

    REHMSecretary Foxx, I think lots of people are wondering about the dangers of the use of drones by, say, a terrorist. Doesn't Homeland Security come into the picture here?

  • 10:16:08

    FOXXThere is multiagency work being done at the federal level to look at security risks and in many of the issues that you've raised. That is interagency work that is ongoing and I can't speak directly to those at this point. All I can say, though, is that folks are paying very careful attention to this issue and progress is being made to assure ourselves that we're being as safe as possible with these drones.

  • 10:16:34

    REHMAnd yet, a couple of drones have already ended up in or near the White House lawn. I mean, you know, that's pretty scary.

  • 10:16:47

    FOXXWell, and those issues are being seriously, both by our security agencies and by law enforcement. But I think the big thing here is that one of the challenges we've had with enforcement is that we haven't been able to track back to the user. And this registry is going to help us do that and there's going to be criminal penalties and fines associated with folks who don't comply with the law.

  • 10:17:10

    REHMSo as I understand what you're saying is that the FBI is going to have to take a look at that drone that landed on the White House lawn, somehow track down the seller and thereby somehow track down the user. Is that what you mean?

  • 10:17:31

    FOXXWell, what I mean is, is that today, if a drone lands in a sensitive area, we have no idea how to find the user. We have to go through a lot of machinations as opposed to having a registry that would have us, you know, either tie to a serial number or some identifying information on that drone that allows us to immediately track who the user is. And that is a huge help to law enforcement. I think it'll be a huge help to consumers because it will expose them to the rules of the road and help them understand where they shouldn't the flying the drones.

  • 10:18:06

    REHMSecretary of transportation, Anthony Foxx, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 10:18:14

    FOXXThank you, Diane.

  • 10:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about the FAA's decision to ensure that drones are somehow regulated. Exactly how, we're not yet sure. There will be a panel whose decision on how to regulate will come after that panel convenes and reaches its decisions by November 20. It's supposed to hold open hearings, but Craig Whitlock, you've been reporting on this for quite a while. I mean, it's all very much literally up in the air, isn't it?

  • 10:20:49

    MR. CRAIG WHITLOCKWell, that's right. The FAA has moved very slowly up until now to figure out how to integrate drones into the national airspace, and there are two fronts with that. One is commercial drones for businesses and using those, and they've moved slowly. They've come up with some draft rules, but that's taken a number of years. But the thing they completely missed the boat on were the hobbyist drones that people just...

  • 10:21:12


  • 10:21:15

    WHITLOCKThat's right. People just want to fly them for fun, and nobody even knows how many of these are out there, but it's a consumer craze, and there's certainly well over a million of these things flying around, and most people can fly them right out of the box, but they don't have any training, they don't have any experience in flying model aircraft, and, you know, it's become a real problem. The FAA has struggled to cope with the safety threat they pose to other air traffic.

  • 10:21:41

    REHMWhat do they look like? How do they work?

  • 10:21:43

    WHITLOCKThey range in size. Some of them look like maybe the toy helicopters you kids used to fly around in the house on Christmas Day. Some are that small. Some range up to several pounds. It depends -- you know, the most popular ones are the ones that have cameras on them, and those weigh a little bit more and can theoretically cause a little bit more damage if they crash into a plane. And, you know, one thing is the threat to passenger planes, like you mentioned going into a jet engine, and the FAA hasn't even studied what sort of engineering impact that would have.

  • 10:22:19

    WHITLOCKBut then you also have helicopters like medical rescue helicopters that fly very close to the ground and in cities or general aviation aircraft like Cessnas. And a drone hitting one of those would cause real problems.

  • 10:22:33

    REHMHow high can a drone fly?

  • 10:22:34

    WHITLOCKWell, this is another basic question that the FAA hasn't really figured out. I think even the manufacturers aren't sure. A lot of manufacturers think their drones only fly to a few hundred feet, but we've a number, dozens or scores of reports, from pilots, passenger airplane pilots, who have seen drones well above 6,000, 7,000, 8,000 feet.

  • 10:22:57

    REHMAnd how far can they go?

  • 10:23:00

    WHITLOCKWell, sometimes they just fly away, and they keep going, and nobody knows until they run out of battery power. They can go as far as they want.

  • 10:23:08

    REHMAnd to you, Marc Rotenberg, lots of privacy concerns about this. In one case, I gather Dianne Feinstein saw one drone out her dining room window with a camera in it.

  • 10:23:23

    MR. MARC ROTENBERGYes, well Diane, I think the privacy issues are significant, but I do want to begin by saying we support the registration proposal that the secretary described.

  • 10:23:32

    REHMDoes it go far enough?

  • 10:23:35

    ROTENBERGNo, it doesn't, but it is an important first step because what the secretary is describing, which is the absence of accountability in the use of drones today is a very serious issue. And so I'm going to say some things about the additional steps the agency needs to take. But I will say at the outset this is a step in the right direction. We'd like to see some privacy safeguards around the data that's being collected because this is a new privacy issue. But as to the larger privacy concerns about the deployment of drones in civilian air space in the United States, I mean, we now have, you know, mobile cameras, sort of peeping Toms in the air, with tremendous capacity to track people, to conduct surveillance, and I think much of the public concern is driven exactly as Craig described, by the fact that these devices don't just fly about, they record what they see.

  • 10:24:28

    ROTENBERGAnd for that reason, we've seen at the state level, California for example recently passed a law saying you just cannot fly into someone else's property, into their backyard, and begin taking video.

  • 10:24:39

    REHMAnd Rebecca MacPherson, didn't Congress pass a law preventing the FAA from regulating recreational drones?

  • 10:24:52

    MS. REBECCA MACPHERSONWell, they did, and this is a tricky issue. The administration's in a difficult spot on how it's going to issue anything consistent with that statute. There are a couple of things. First of all, the statute speaks to promulgating regulations, which would argue that there's a new regulatory structure. As the secretary pointed out, drones are aircraft, they've been defined as aircraft by Congress, so that issue really has been put to rest, and every aircraft in the United States, other than military aircraft, already have to be registered.

  • 10:25:27

    REHMOf course.

  • 10:25:28

    MACPHERSONWhat the FAA has done is they've said as a matter of policy we're not going to take enforcement against unregistered recreational drones. But the requirement is still there. So what they'll have to say is that they are re-considering their policy conditions, that they know believe existing regulations do apply and that the new regulations are only to ease the registration method.

  • 10:25:56

    REHMSo is Congress going to have to get in on this again?

  • 10:25:59

    MACPHERSONWell, well, I mean, Congress will have to get in on it if the courts get in on it. You know, they have -- the FAA has an argument. It's not completely ridiculous. I'm not sure they would win in a court of appeals, but I'm also not sure anybody's going to sue.

  • 10:26:17

    REHMAnd to you, Richard Hanson, I gather you represent the recreational drone users. What do you think about the secretary's thoughts, his ideas for moving forward in order to somehow regulate the number of drones that have proliferated?

  • 10:26:38

    MR. RICHARD HANSONYes, and good morning. I think it's important to realize when you use the term drones, we're talking about a very large spectrum of aircraft, as Craig pointed out, everything from virtually toy aircraft that have minimum capabilities and have minimum potential for damage and injury when they're used. A lot of them have very short lifespans, and they're given as gifts for Christmas, and they're done by New Year's. So I think it's going to be necessary to really take a close look at the threshold for registration to make sure it makes sense and make sure we're not capturing a whole grouping of aircraft that really operate innocuously in the airspace.

  • 10:27:25

    REHMBut if you use the word toy, I mean, that sort of brings to mind something very small and, as you say, very limited. But if a toy has the capacity to go high and go long, doesn't that become a drone that must be regulated somehow?

  • 10:27:51

    HANSONWell, whether or not it's a drone I'm not sure because that's a pretty broad term, but certainly it starts getting into that threshold of regulation. The key here is the automation that's onboard the aircraft. These small devices really have very limited capability when flown in a traditional fashion like a radio-controlled aircraft, where the operator has to be able to see that aircraft and control it. It really takes automation to get that aircraft beyond what's called visual line of sight and to get it to any significant altitude because these things virtually disappear from sight within a few hundred feet.

  • 10:28:23

    HANSONSo I think that the automation capability and the automation build into the system is one threshold we need to look at, and size and weight probably needs to be looked at, as well.

  • 10:28:33

    REHMWhat about that, Craig?

  • 10:28:34

    WHITLOCKWell, I think he's right, but this is again something the FAA should have done a long time ago, which is people saw this coming. Maybe they didn't see the popularity of drones, but even what we have now with all the small to mid-range drones that are flying around, that's just the tip of the iceberg. In the coming years, we're going to see businesses, recreational users, or, you know, right now the rule the FAA is contemplating for commercial drones are drones up to 55 pounds, and some businesses are flying those.

  • 10:29:06

    WHITLOCKWell, imagine two cinderblocks flying around at 100 miles an hour going, you know, into airspace, the damage that can cause. And that's not some futuristic, sci-fi scenario. That's going to start happening in a matter of months.

  • 10:29:22

    REHMSo I want to go back to something you said early on, differentiating between recreational drones and those used for business. How is the FAA going to perhaps use different regulations for those two categories?

  • 10:29:43

    WHITLOCKWell, that's a really good question and one that may not make a whole lot of sense to the average person out there, which is you can have the same model of drone with a camera on it that could weigh, let's say, 20 pounds. A business wants to use it, too, for wedding photography or to do inspections on tall buildings. They have to jump through hoops with the FAA to make sure they follow safety procedures.

  • 10:30:07

    WHITLOCKIf a person wants to do the same thing and just say they're doing it for fun or regulation, there's absolutely no rules that apply.

  • 10:30:16

    REHMSo it would seem to me that the rules on regulation would have to apply at the source, Rebecca. You'd have to -- both your dealer and your buyer would have to be honest enough to be willing to have that drone regulated.

  • 10:30:41

    MACPHERSONWell actually the -- excuse me -- the drone industry has been pretty supportive of some form of regulations. They recognize in general that they're exposed to a lot of risk in the absence of regulations. In terms of registration, it's not clear how those are going to be registered. If you register with the FAA, it's not a problem with the dealers and the manufacturers. It's a huge workload for the FAA, and they're really not staffed up to deal with it.

  • 10:31:11

    MACPHERSONIf you push that on to the manufacturers and the dealers, they, you know, they'll comply, but it raises a lot more privacy issues, and it also makes the situation much more complicated in the, and I will say, rare and unlikely event that a drone sighting actually results in anybody being able to identify that drone.

  • 10:31:34

    REHMMarc Rotenberg?

  • 10:31:34

    ROTENBERGWell, a couple points. I mean, first of all, as others have pointed out to me, you know, this looks very much like ham radio license in some ways, which the government is quite familiar with and was instituted in part to educate people to take responsibility for a technology that impacts others. And I think the FAA can take a responsibility, just as the FCC does to protect the airwaves, so that people can make use of drones.

  • 10:32:00

    ROTENBERGNow as to the scope of the application for recreational users, it seems to me a little obvious line to draw. If the device, the toy, is in your home or in your backyard or on your property, it's probably not necessary to register. But if you're going to take it anywhere outside of your home, where there are implications for others or public safety...

  • 10:32:19

    REHMAnd that goes to the automated question, yes.

  • 10:32:21

    ROTENBERGIt seems almost obvious that it should be registered. And I think the public understands this. I mean, I think it really is a situation where when you begin to take these new technologies, and we're going to have this issue, by the way, with robots, as well. I mean, robots will be sort of traveling along the sidewalks just as drones are flying in the air, and I think we need to begin to take some responsibility for these autonomous devices, and we need to be clear that if one of these devices is off someone's property, they're going to bear the responsibility for what happens.

  • 10:32:55

    REHMCraig Whitlock, it sounds to me as though, as in many other issues, we're playing catch-up

  • 10:33:02

    WHITLOCKWell, exactly. I mean, look at the FAA. They've been dealing with this issue for years, how to regulate drones. You've had a number of reports, last year, this year, of drones crashing into the White House lawn, into air traffic, and now all of a sudden they're saying oh no, Christmas is around the corner, we're selling so many of these we have to register them within two months. They're clearly playing catch-up on this.

  • 10:33:26

    REHMCraig Whitlock, he's a reporter for the Washington Post covering the Pentagon and national security. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And as you can imagine, we've got lots of callers. Let's go to the phones, 800-433-8850, to Milford, Connecticut. Hi there, Jordan, you're on the air.

  • 10:33:58

    JORDANHello there, thank you very much for having me on the show.

  • 10:33:59


  • 10:34:01

    JORDANI hope it's not cheating to have two things because I did want to ask regarding, will this regulation be applied to toy helicopters and remote-controlled airplanes? And also, I recently got started with quad-copters, and I like them a lot, am interesting in using them for photography, however, regarding the privacy thing, the thing is, like, drones, the majority of drones that are sold to hobbyists are absolutely terrible for espionage. They have, like, four, whiny motors. So you can't really good audio for them. And if you really want to spy on somebody, you're going to get noticed with something with flashing lights and stuff. So they're not good for spying. I just want to bring that up.

  • 10:34:40

    REHMAll right, thanks for your call. What about this question of toy helicopters and airplanes, Richard?

  • 10:34:49

    HANSONYes, that goes to my previous comment about establishing an appropriate threshold. We know that model aircraft, traditional, radio-controlled model aircraft, have been flown for decades within our community-program and under our safety rules for decades with very little difficulty and harmoniously within our communities. So I would certainly advocate that toy aircraft, model aircraft in the traditional sense are not at that threshold of needing registration.

  • 10:35:20

    HANSONBut when you add in the automation and the capability of going beyond visual line of sight, that's when you start getting into aircraft that could be problematic.

  • 10:35:29

    MACPHERSONBut you see today that the aircraft that are being used are not designed to go beyond visual line of sight. I think the thing to keep in mind, to your point that it's been very safe for a lot of years, is these are people who traditionally have been aviation enthusiasts, and they understood the risk to the national airspace system. Our new group of drone users are not those people, and there's really not any difference between the device, depending on whether you use it for commercial or private use. The exact same drones are used for various purposes, and I just don't think it's a good way to draw the line.

  • 10:36:04

    REHMBut are professionals operating the commercial ones, and individuals perhaps totally untrained operating the others?

  • 10:36:13

    MACPHERSONNo, they're operating the exact same drones. If you look at the part -- the Section 333 exemptions that the FAA has granted, the largest number of exemptions have been granted to a DJI model, which is designed specifically for recreational use.

  • 10:36:28

    REHMNo, but what I mean, what about the people operating?

  • 10:36:33

    MACPHERSONBut the 333s are commercial operation by definition, and they are using the drone that has been designed for recreational use. It just doesn't make any difference in terms of the actual device.

  • 10:36:44

    REHMDoes the person who's operating the commercial device and the person who's operating the recreational device, their training surely is different, isn't it, Craig?

  • 10:37:04

    WHITLOCKWell, if you're doing it for fun, for recreation, you don't have to have any training whatsoever.

  • 10:37:07


  • 10:37:08

    WHITLOCKIf you're doing it for commercial purposes, you do need to demonstrate some familiarity. You need to get a pretty basic license from the FAA. But, you know, there's -- training may be exaggerating it a little bit.

  • 10:37:24


  • 10:37:24

    WHITLOCKThe rules so far has been you need to have some familiarity but not too stiff.

  • 10:37:29

    REHMAll right, we'll take a short break. We've got lots of callers who want to join the conversation. Short break, right back.

  • 10:40:04

    REHMWell, and here's the other side of the argument from Laura in Pittsburgh, so says, I'm a big fan of yours, Diane Rehm, but I'm very disappointed to hear your take on the drone issue. And by the way, I don't have a take. But she goes on to say, based on the questions you've asked a listener who has no experience with drones will become frightened by them. My sons have drones. They obey all the rules about where and how high to fly them. My boys make videos with their drones, videos of nature's beauty that would make you weep. Please explore on y our show how great drones can be. Craig?

  • 10:40:54

    WHITLOCKWell, Diane, there's no question what we're seeing right now is a revolution in aviation. The technology that allows drones to fly on an automated basis, the cameras they can carry, the capabilities that they will have in the coming years are kind of hard to wrap your mind around. And there are tremendous uses for them, no question, and we're going to see that revolutionize our dailies lives. It's more than just taking pretty pictures of nature. There's a lot of other things you can do. The two questions, though, that the government, the federal government and state governments, haven't figured out and are just starting to wrestle with, are how do they do this safely. How can we make sure this is done safely, and what about privacy with the cameras? Because right now, as Marc said, you know, no one setting foot outdoors should have any expectation of privacy when it comes to cameras on drones. The laws aren't set up to address it.

  • 10:41:54

    REHMHelp me to understand the automation process, Richard, and how much control the operator has with an automated drone, how high it can fly, whether it can collide with some other object. I mean, how much control does the operator have?

  • 10:42:18

    HANSONThe operator has a lot of control in terms of programming the aircraft on how it's going to fly.

  • 10:42:22

    REHMProgramming, okay.

  • 10:42:25

    HANSONWhen it has, say, an autopilot that's coupled to a GPS receiver. It then is capable of being pre-programmed to great distances and great altitudes, depending upon the discretion of the operator to follow appropriate rules. That's why I get back to the point that that's really where the breakpoint is between traditional model aircraft and toy aircraft is when you start putting the level of automation that gives that aircraft the capability of going great distances from the operator, and the model aircraft industry, the model aircraft traditionals, there's over 180,000 members of the AMA, have flown the traditional model aircraft safely and responsibly for decades, and they do it within a safety structure.

  • 10:43:07

    HANSONAnd that was really what Congress was getting to when it passed the last reauthorization bill and created the special rule for model aircraft. It does create a carve-out for hobbyists but only hobbyists that are operating within a community-based organization. Those people, personal users and consumers, that choose not to operate within such a structure are then subject to any regulation, current regulation and future regulation, that the FAA might write, and that's very specifically pointed out in the proposed rule that the FAA released in February.

  • 10:43:37

    REHMSo if an automated drone the person on the ground has programmed the drone, how does that drone happen to collide with an aircraft?

  • 10:43:56

    HANSONWell, under current technology that aircraft in and of itself has no ability, what they call see and avoid or sense and avoid another aircraft. So it's pre-programmed to go from Point A to Point B, and another aircraft is in that path, there's no way of avoiding it.

  • 10:44:13

    REHMAnd who's got the right of way?

  • 10:44:15

    HANSONWell, the manned aircraft certainly does, but...

  • 10:44:16


  • 10:44:16

    HANSONAnd that's why the FAA up to now has not really been sanctioning any beyond visual line of sight occurrences or operations because the technology isn't proven yet where you could actually do what they call sense and avoid.

  • 10:44:32


  • 10:44:32

    WHITLOCKYeah, one problem, Diane, too, is the reliability of a lot of these aircraft, particularly the ones that are being manufactured now. The FAA doesn't have any standards in place that they meet certain mechanical or technological requirement. So most of the time they work very well, when somebody programs in, I want to fly around, I want go here or there, I want to look over Diane's backyard or something like that. But the problem is sometimes things go haywire, and they fly away, and that's a term that's come up among drone hobbyists are problems with fly-aways, and they just take off, they lose their radio control link, they lose their satellite link, and off they go.

  • 10:45:11

    WHITLOCKAnd that's one of the problems we're seeing, and that's not just hobbyist drones. The military has problems with losing link with its aircraft, with its drones that they fly overseas, and they're increasingly flying them at home, too, and these are big drones. These aren't little, tiny things. These are ones that are the size of regular aircraft. So most of the time they work, but sometimes when they don't, that's -- when haywire happens, that's the big problem.

  • 10:45:36


  • 10:45:38

    ROTENBERGWell, I think the key point here is that the FAA has a mandate to protect public safety, and even though Congress said in 2012 let's promote the deployment of drones in the national air space, it also said you need to develop a comprehensive plan, and we believe that that comprehensive plan includes both safety regulations and privacy regulations.

  • 10:46:02

    ROTENBERGThe FAA was supposed to announce at the end of the September its proposal for regulations. It missed that deadline, which is significant, by the way.

  • 10:46:12

    REHMAnd now they've set a new deadline, November 30.

  • 10:46:15

    ROTENBERGWell, this is the deadline for the recommendations from their task force for registration, which as I said, I think we support that. But there's so much more that needs to be done. As I mentioned to your producer earlier, following a petition from many privacy experts and organizations to the FAA administrator for privacy regulations and their failure to take up our proposal, we've actually sued the agency. We've said we believe you have a legal responsibility to put in place privacy rules as part of the comprehensive plan.

  • 10:46:47

    REHMAll right to Patrick in Orlando, Florida, you're on the air.

  • 10:46:52

    PATRICKThank you so much, Diane. I love your show.

  • 10:46:54

    REHMThank you.

  • 10:46:54

    PATRICKI'm retired from a major aerospace company that's headquartered in Bethesda, and 10 years ago I worked on the UAV program, which is really related, UAVs, UAS, drones, they're all the same thing, just different terminology. The FAA had the opportunity years ago to look at this. We tried to partner with another company to fly aircraft across Hurricane Katrina, and we couldn't because there were restrictions, the term was deconfliction.

  • 10:47:42

    PATRICKAnd we simply had to stop what we were doing. The other issue is, when you're talking about the little drones that you can buy, you or I can dry, can buy, sorry, the issue there is they need to be treated like the little toy gun that can be confused as a real gun because in the case of this drone, it's got the potential for damaging aircraft, as in the case with the little toy gun, it's got the potential for somebody confusing it as a real gun.

  • 10:48:24

    REHMAll right, thanks for your call, Richard.

  • 10:48:29

    HANSONWell, I'm not sure that the analogy fits between toy guns and toy aircraft. There's lots of things that compose a hazard to manned aircraft, but the virtual toy aircraft, by its appearance, really doesn't do that. So I kind of question the analogy that the caller has presented.

  • 10:48:48


  • 10:48:48

    WHITLOCKWell, this isn't exactly what the caller, what Patrick was referring to, but just to make your hair really stand on end. There has been a case earlier this year where a young man in Connecticut had -- bought a hobbyist drone and equipped it with a semi-automatic pistol, and he posted video to YouTube of the aircraft firing shots in the woods, and the police, you know, tried to arrest him, tried to make him stop, but the law was unclear on what they could or couldn't do, and these are the kind of things that people haven't really addressed or figured out what to do with it.

  • 10:49:25

    WHITLOCKIn the end he wasn't charged with anything. He was just doing it in his backyard. But, you know, imagine the mayhem somebody like that could cause with these things.

  • 10:49:35

    REHMAnd other mayhem, Marc Rotenberg, there's been an example of a drone situated in Aberdeen, Maryland, right now that is government-operated, and we have no idea why it's there.

  • 10:49:55

    ROTENBERGThis is the giant blimp that people see now when they're driving along the Beltway. It's suspended in the air. It's part of the JLENS program operated by the Army, and it has surveillance capability all over Washington, no privacy rules in place.

  • 10:50:10

    REHMNo privacy rules in place.

  • 10:50:13

    ROTENBERGNo, and we think that obviously needs to be addressed as part of a comprehensive program to address these issues.

  • 10:50:22

    MACPHERSONThe FAA wouldn't have authority to deal with that anyway, though. That's a public aircraft operation, and the question of whether there are privacy rules in effect regarding -- you know, those are covered by your standard, existing, traditional rules that apply to any intelligence operation. I don't think anybody, including Congress, wants the FAA addressing the privacy considerations of military aircraft, which is essentially what it is.

  • 10:50:47

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones, well, an email from Nick in Virginia. Will the public be allowed to comment on the proposed drone registration regulations? Isn't this required by the Administrative Procedure Act? Rebecca?

  • 10:51:13

    MACPHERSONSo it is unless the administration issues an emergency rule, in which case the requirement for public comment can be waved. And I think that's exactly what the administration plans on doing after it gets the recommendations of the task force on November 20. If it plans on issuing anything in less than, you know, about eight months to a year, it's going to have to do it by claiming that there is a safety emergency sufficient to waive the comment period, and I think that's exactly where they're headed.

  • 10:51:43

    MACPHERSONThey've signposted very clearly that they're going to deal with any potential issues by playing the safety card.

  • 10:51:52

    REHMLet's go to Marco in Dallas, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 10:51:54

    MARCODiane, thank you for taking my call.

  • 10:51:56


  • 10:51:58

    MARCOI wanted to talk a little bit about the differences, and I think your speakers have done a good job in differentiating between commercial drone activity and recreational drone activity. We started utilizing UAVs about four years ago to provide a wide array of unmanned aerial inspection services across North America, Europe and now down in South America. It -- in January of last year, when the FAA grounded all commercial drone activity, it basically put us out of business.

  • 10:52:33

    MARCOWe stopped all activities in the United States, focused on expanding our business in Europe and other regions, and once we got our 333 certification in April of this year, we have started gaining, you know, some traction and getting back into business in the United States. The regulations that the FAA have put in place, I feel, are, you know, valid, they increase the level of safety as an operator, and they give credibility to the commercial side of the business.

  • 10:53:05

    MARCOYou know, we can't fly a drone with one person. We have to have either a private pilot or a commercial pilot as the PIC, and we have to have a spotter, who their responsibility is only to keep their eyes on the flight path of the drone so we don't lose line of sight. We have to follow COA. So the local FAA regulations say, you know, they have to know where we will be operating, what days, what times. And I think the problem really comes in when someone who is using the exact same drones that we use recreationally and doesn't adhere to those regulations.

  • 10:53:41

    REHMIndeed, Richard.

  • 10:53:43

    HANSONWell, he's exactly right. The existing rules that are in place for 333 exemption holders are very specific in the operations that have to take place and can take place. The hobbyist or the personal user, I would call it, because I think there is a differentiation between true hobbyist and the consumer, but the person user just doesn't know those rules. And what we did last year was to partner with the Association for Unmanned Vehicles, Systems International and the FAA in an educational program called Know Before You Fly, which is intended to get the basic safety information and some of those rules into the packaging of these products so the consumer has it when they open the package for Christmas.

  • 10:54:23

    REHMCraig Whitlock, I understand that there are many states that aren't going to wait for the federal government to make some overall and general rules. What's happening statewide?

  • 10:54:38

    WHITLOCKWell, across the country it's a real mess, Diane. You have different states passing bills, introducing legislation that conflict with one another. You know, Marc mentioned in California there was a bill that passed by the legislature but ultimately vetoed by the governor that would have prevented people from using camera drones to spy on...

  • 10:54:58

    ROTENBERGIt was signed October 6.

  • 10:55:01

    WHITLOCKOkay, well maybe you have more updated information on that. But, you know, in Florida, they passed something this summer, you know, very strict, won't let people use them in backyards. Other states it's wide open. You know, there's all these different scenarios come up whether you can use drones to take video of hunters. You know, animal rights groups have pressed for, you know, pressed that, and states have tried to protect the hunters.

  • 10:55:24

    WHITLOCKSo, you know, all these states have different patchwork of laws in place, but really it's going to take Congress to weigh in to have some uniformity to it, and so far they haven't done that.

  • 10:55:35

    REHMWell, we had one tweet that said, I will not be purchasing anything that must be regulated by the FAA. Do you think that there will be compliance, Rebecca, if indeed the FAA does pass new, stricter rules?

  • 10:55:58

    MACPHERSONSo I think there will be essentially no compliance with the requirement that you register a drone you already own. There probably will be compliance with the new drones because the dealers will probably make you fill out the paperwork before you leave the store. How they're going to do that with online purchases I don't know, but anybody who has an existing drone, they're not going to register.

  • 10:56:23

    REHMAll right, we'll have to leave it at there and watch what the FAA does. Rebecca MacPherson, she was assistant chief counsel at the FAA, Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post and Richard Hanson, director for the Academy of Model Aeronautics. Earlier you hear from Anthony Foxx, secretary of transportation. Thank you all.

  • 10:57:03

    ROTENBERGThank you.

  • 10:57:04

    REHMThanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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