Drone technology races ahead of rule-makers

Friday, September 5, 2014
Here come the drones
Drones are already changing the way we watch our world. But the problem is, the rules for operating them are still up in the air.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Here come the drones: remote-controlled flying machines may one day deliver packages to your home. They're already changing the way we watch our world. But the problem is, the rules for operating them are still up in the air.

It's clear we don't want drones crashing into a hot spring at Yellowstone, as happened last month, nor do most of us want them buzzing uninvited over our homes. On the other hand, their uses for business, science, entertainment are extraordinary. And once again, technology is racing well ahead of the rule-makers.

Colin Hinkle has his own UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle. Fitted with a GoPro camera, he can take pictures that are truly a bird's eye view.

"It's like you're a bird flying around, and you're getting this view of the city or wherever you may be that you would never get and that's what so intriguing that people love that you get this view that you're like, wow, look at that," said Hinkle.

As a professional news photographer, Colin can recreationally fly his drone and make videos, but if he tries to sell them, can't do that.

"The current state of the law is bizarre. He can do it for fun and there aren't any rules. There are some guidelines but they're non-binding, but as soon as he does it professionally, he's violating the law," said Prof. Henry Perritt Jr., IIT-Kent College of Law.

The FAA currently does not allow lightweight drones to be used for commercial purposes, so Colin has applied with the FAA for a formal waiver. And he's not alone. So have universities, pipeline operators, Hollywood movie-makers, news operations, farm interests, real estate firms.

Paul Meincke asks: "Anybody from the FAA called you?"

Dan Isaacson: "No."

Meincke: "Said you can't do this?"

Isaacson: "No."

Meincke: "You gonna keep doing it?"

Isaacson: "Absolutely."

Dan Isaacson runs a firm that uses drones to take video of homes for sale. Hugely successful in providing potential home-buyers with a look not just inside a house, but at the neighborhood they may choose to buy into- clearly a commercial purpose.

"Our attorneys are saying we have three tiers of government, and the judicial branch has said that the FAA doesn't have the authority to enforce a rule that doesn't exist, so until they write that rule we're going to continue to have operations," said Isaacson.

There are some basic rules from the FAA which is mandated with insuring air safety. Drones are to fly no higher than 400 feet, must be within the operator's line of sight, not within 5 miles of an airport, and flying over large crowds like Lollapalooza remains a no-no. But more specific rules have yet to be finalized while the demand for and use of drones is growing. And at the same time, what of privacy expectations? If someone keeps buzzing your home with a camera-equipped drone, do you have any legal recourse?

"That's why we need some guidelines across the country and we ought to be thinking about this, not just for now, but what this looks like five years from now when I suspect drone technology will be more plentiful than today," said Ed Yohnka, ACLU.

There are many laws across the country addressing privacy issues, but national standards are still built around three-decades-old technology. Updating that is Congress' job, and keeping our airspace safe is the FAA's. The agency is supposed to propose more specific rules this fall for operating lightweight drones, but as the clock ticks, more drones are coming.