One way or another, the UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones — are coming, and, in some cases are already here. Yet the Federal Aviation Administration, which is charged with overseeing such things, is well behind schedule in coming up with rules.
Military uses aside, toy unmanned aircraft have been around for decades as radio-controlled airplanes. The planes are legal, as are toy drones, but they must be kept relatively close to the ground and cannot be flown near airports.
Nor can toy drones be flown near wildfires, though they have been reported at several fires this summer, including the Two Bulls Fire near Bend in June.
There are good reasons for the restrictions. Fires are smoky by definition, and helicopter and other pilots working to help get them under control may be having problems seeing what’s around them. A collision with an unseen drone could be disastrous.
In the end, however, drones will be used by civilians as far more than toys. They’re already tools in some research and at least one Texas business uses them to help find missing persons. And the University of Alaska will coordinate activity at a drone test site on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
There’s a problem, however. In 2012, Congress gave the FAA until September 2015 to draft rules that would integrate nonmilitary UAVs into U.S. airspace, and the agency is well behind in its efforts to meet that deadline.
Meanwhile, the agency continues to say that anybody but a toy drone operator must obtain a special permit to fly. That’s put a kink in a variety of research and other projects, and at least two federal judges have overturned the FAA’s efforts to stop particular flights.
Yet keeping the nation’s skies safe requires the sort of expertise that few federal judges have. That requires the likes of the men and women at the FAA. Creating new rules is going slowly, and the agency must find a way to speed the process.