The 2-year-old boy was missing for five days in southwest Texas in March 2012, and the Davis family called on the search and rescue organization Texas EquuSearch to help find the child. A member of EquuSearch decided to use a 5-pound plastic foam drone to take photos of the area, and after a search team member reviewed the images taken by the drone, the boy’s body was found in alligator-infested waters. Kayakers had paddled nearby and others had walked by the area but couldn’t see the body hidden by the reeds.
But on Feb. 21, the Federal Aviation Administration asked EquuSearch to stop using drones, citing a 2007 rule that grants hobbyists the right to fly. Any other use is forbidden.
That next month, the group took the FAA to court, arguing that drones should be allowed for humanitarian purposes.
Drone users and would-be users gathered at the National Press Club on Wednesday to urge the government to issue rules for what they hope will be a booming business.
The EquuSearch case is the second time the FAA was sued over civilian drone use. In March, Brendan Schulman, a New York-based attorney, won a case against the FAA in which he argued the agency didn’t have the legal right to fine a drone pilot. The judge granted a dismissal, and the FAA appealed the decision the next day.
“We’re at the dawn of a revolution in technology,” Schulman said during the panel discussion about drones.
Pressure is coming from other industries as well. On Friday, Amazon hired the Washington-based lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld to help sell its drone-based delivery service Amazon Prime Air to Congress.
Current regulations were written with air passenger safety in mind without any rules for unmanned aircraft. Because of that, there isn’t any delineation between a drone that weighs an ounce and one that is the size of a passenger jet, Schulman said.
Ben Gielow, counsel and government relations manager at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said that without definition the national air space becomes “the wild west.”
He cited an AUVSI report that said once civilian drone technology is green-lighted thousands of jobs would be created.
“How many industries are begging the government to start regulating them?” Gielow said during the discussion.
Schulman said he hopes the FAA will release rules for small, unmanned aerial vehicles by the end of 2014. A short public comment period will follow, and then the rules will need to be approved by the Department of Transportation and the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“The FAA is years behind,” Gielow said.
The department’s inspector general agrees. His office released a report in February saying it is unlikely rules will be released in time for the congressionally mandated September 2015 deadline.
Schulman and other drone enthusiasts want to know when they can fly without breaking the law.
“It’s like yelling at a closed door that has ‘keep out’ written on it,” Parker Gyokeres, secretary of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, said.
Gyokeres is a former U.S. Air Force photojournalist who decided to combine his two passions – photography and aviation. He started Propellerheads Aerial Photography, which provides commercial and residential photography and video services. He said he’s been tentative in marketing his services because he doesn’t want to attract attention from the FAA.
“I’ll follow the rules, but there aren’t any,” Gyokeres said.
To manage safety, Gyokeres said he always flies his drones within his line of sight and keeps them under 400 feet – which follows a 1981 FAA operating standard for model airplanes.
Whenever he’s shooting in a neighborhood, he knocks on doors and lets neighbors know why he’s taking photos with a drone. More often than not, they ask for a demonstration.
Gyokeres said he expects to receive a cease and desist letter from the FAA, “Then I’ll pick up the phone and call Brendan.”
But the idea of allowing drones into the airspace isn’t sitting well with most Americans. In a Pew Research telephone survey of 1,001 adults in February, 63 percent of respondents said it would be a change for the worse of drones are given permission to fly through the airspace. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
Gielow said he expects other governmental entities to define how and when drones can fly. Some states have already moved to prevent police from using drones without warrants, and he said the Federal Trade Commission will likely weigh in on the legality of data collection using drones.
Several public universities studying drones received letters last summer, classifying them as government agencies.
With the delays, drone pilots are waiting for the courts to decide Schulman’s cases, as they will likely define the law before the FAA does.
Reach reporter Daniel Wheaton at email@example.com or 202-236-9871. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.