Drones are not just fun and games

Retail chain Sam’s Club announced recently it is expanding its inventory of drones well ahead of the Christmas shopping season. Company officials anticipate strong sales, to everyone from children looking for a fun new toy to business owners seeking a new tool. As drones soar into the retail sector, safety, security and privacy issues remain unresolved.

In February the Federal Aviation Administration announced proposed new rules regarding the use of commercial drones that would allow them to be deployed up to 500 feet (currently it’s 400 feet) but always within the operator’s sight. Operators would have to be at least 17 and have a certificate to fly the devices.

Sam’s Club and other retailers are marketing to recreational users as well as business owners – for example real estate agents looking for aerial photos or farmers wishing to surveil their crops. Kids into the latest technology want the devices, too, and with drones selling for as little as $30, sales – and drone traffic – could explode.

Drones pose serious safety issues. Although they’re not allowed near airports, commercial pilots have reported seeing them, and at altitudes in the thousands of feet. Meanwhile, people have expressed concern about possible property damage should a drone crash, cause injury (singer Julio Iglesias cut his hand recently on a drone that was buzzing him during a performance in Mexico City) and invade privacy.

The FAA is promoting a “Know Before You Fly” campaign aimed at educating users about unmanned aircraft and outlining safety guidelines. But how workable are these essentially voluntary guidelines? One of them is “don’t fly near people or stadiums.” What’s to prevent a kid deploying his new toy from flying over a neighbor sunbathing by a backyard pool? Hovering near someone’s window?

Sam’s Club is hardly the only retailer selling drones. Consumers’ enthusiastic embrace of unmanned aircraft is outstripping regulators’ ability to control them. There’s much money to be made in drones, both by the aircraft manufacturers and the retailers. This genie won’t go back into the lamp.

But sensible rules, and consequences for violations, are essential to ensure safety and security, and most of all to protect ordinary Americans from intentional or unintentional intrusion from the skies.

– Pocono Record