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Clearing up the hazy rules surrounding drones

NASA Ames event draws everyone from Amazon to enthusiasts to discuss unmanned aircraft regulations

Look up in the sky these days and you might just see a drone buzzing around. These small autonomous flyers are getting cheaper and more ubiquitous, but one thing they currently lack is a clear set of boundaries for how and where they can be used.

This week, more than 1,000 attendees are flocking to the NASA Ames Research Center with the goal of zeroing in on better rules and tools for the growing drone market. Considered by some as the industry's premiere event, the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management Convention brought various stakeholders together to discuss a future where the skies are populated with hundreds of little drones.

The global market for drones is already estimated to be a $2.5 billion industry, much of which is derived from the huge push to adopt drones for commercial uses. Nevertheless, aviation rules as set by the FAA are almost entirely based on the days when flying meant formally certified pilots being in the cockpit of an aircraft. The definition of flying has rapidly changed with the advent of drones, which sell for as little as $300. The power and perils of aviation are now open to pretty much anyone, but those newcomers have a hazy set of rules governing the airspace.

Making the firmest pitch of the day, Amazon Vice President Gur Kimchi used his keynote address to urge policymakers to consider reserving the airspace between 200 and 400 feet as an expressway for drones. That airspace is already off-limits for manned aircraft, which normally stay above 1,000 feet except for takeoffs and landings.

"We feel this is a safe and scalable approach," Kimchi said. "This is a call for action. We need to come together as an industry; we have to define and adopt standards for airspace access."

Amazon officials have made it no secret they see unmanned flyers as a game-changer for low-cost and speedy retail delivery. The company has promoted the idea that shoppers could one day receive orders by drone in 30 minutes or less.

Plenty of other corporate interests are also championing drones as the wave of the future. For example, local tech giant Google is racing to develop its own delivery system, announcing recently it had designed a small plane-helicopter hybrid that can carry small packages. Some reports indicate even Taco Bell is considering drones as a way to deliver hot food orders. Those high-flying ideas have generated many headlines, but regulators have been vague how they which uses they would find acceptable.

Little clarity was provided Tuesday at the NASA event's initial round of talks. In his introductory remarks, Edward Bolton, Jr., Federal Aviation Administration assistant administrator, said that his team is committed to working with the commercial interests. He explained that a stakeholder group is working a final set of proposed regulations, but he avoided specifics on what was being considered. Above everything else, the FAA considers public safety its top priority, he said.

"This is absolutely the dawn of a new era," Bolton declared. "We have a cultural change and mentality that's excited about being aggressive to make things happen."

It seemed like if there was a theme for the drone event's first day, it was that there are more looming questions than answers surrounding the technology. Case in point, a morning panel focused on the myriad of legal, public-safety and privacy issues surrounding drone use.

Diana Cooper, an attorney with the firm LaBarge Weinstein, pointed out that case law still hasn't addressed drone use. For now, much of the legal precedent surrounded airspace came from a 70-year-old U.S. Supreme Court case spurred by a chicken farmer angry at military planes flying low over his property. For the most part, drones remain in a legal and policy limbo that still needs to be sorted out, she said.

"The (law) is very vague on where the line is drawn between public and private airspace – Operators don't know how close they can fly," Cooper said. "It's an open question how these emerging technologies would change this calculus."

For some attendees, it seemed a no-brainer that a new technology's challenges should have a technological solution. Various exhibits at the convention promoted ideas for how a ground-based air-control system could manage hundreds of drones, preventing them from flying near airports or into each other. Others pitched early-stage mapping tools that would allow property owners to forbid drones from flying over their land.

There have been a plethora of examples of drone operators becoming a nuisance by photographing unwilling bystanders or pestering emergency responders, but it's been less clear when they are breaking the law. In recent days, firefighters in San Bernardino County blamed a group of drone operators for getting in the way of aircraft trying to douse brush fires. The incident sparked multiple state law proposals to add tougher penalties or allow fire officials to shoot down drones that fly into restricted areas.

Bill English, an investigator with the National Traffic Safety Board, indicated it was only a matter of time before some major event forced a larger public discussion on drone usage.

"If we have that situation say a (drone) gets loose on a soccer field with 10-year-olds you will see a media and political circus the likes of which you have never seen before," he said.

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