Congress Paves Way for Unmanned Drones in U.S. Commercial Airspace

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Ready to see drones flying over your house? A new bill passed by Congress will give commercial, private and military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) greatly increased access to U.S. airspace that’s currently reserved only for manned planes.

Right now drones are mostly limited to the U.S.-Mexico border and military airspace, as well as use by around 300 public agencies located far away from cities and airports. That is now scheduled to change by September 30, 2015.

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The main focus of the bill is the FAA’s adoption of NextGen, a program that will allow commercial aircraft to install and use GPS technology for steeper, more efficient take-offs and landings instead of the ridiculously outdated way things are done now. All in all, this should help make air travel a lot more time efficient.

We shouldn’t, however, ignore the implications of letting drones into airspace that was previously off-limits. While the military and local police forces have long been able to use UAVs in operations on U.S. soil, the prospect of commercial and privately owned drones presents plenty of new questions.

First, there’s the issue of privacy. Rigging a cheap drone with a video camera was no problem for an Occupy protestor; how hard would it be for someone with deeper pockets to finance a drone with even more powerful surveillance equipment to monitor, well, who knows what? How will we know what purposes any private citizen has for deploying a drone overhead?

Then there are the corporations. Forbes points out that companies like Google could ditch their Street View cars and start deploying advanced, autonomous drones to roam the country for incredibly thorough mapping. If the idea of fleets of corporate-owned drones monitoring us from above doesn’t scare you, then you are a much less paranoid person than I.

Safety is the other unmanned albatross in the room. According to the Associated Press, “Within nine months of the bill’s passage, the FAA is required to submit a plan on how to safely provide drones with expanded access.”

What will that entail? The Air Line Pilots Association thinks that all drone operators should have the same amount of training as pilots, a standard that would eliminate a lot of potential drone enthusiasts and force corporations to hire pilots (which we would hope they would do anyway). It seems like a sound idea.

In the end, drones are going to have a lot less leeway when it comes to crashing. If a pilot crashes through someone’s roof and dies, it’s an unpredictable tragedy. If a drone crashes through someone’s roof and explodes? Expect plenty of moral outrage. Let’s hope the lawmakers err on the side of caution, lest one downed drone ruin it for everybody.

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