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A Look At The FAA's Proposed Drone Regulations


If you unwrapped a drone this holiday season or you're still hoping to, you might need an upgrade soon. Yesterday, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed new regulations that would require almost all drones to have technology allowing them to be tracked at all times. Troy Rule studies drones at Arizona State University's Law School.


TROY RULE: Great to be here. Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This proposal is more than 300 pages long, so give us a couple highlights.

RULE: Well, the most important part of this is that going forward in the next few years, every drone that's larger than 250 grams, or a little over half a pound, is going to have to have some sort of identification or tracking system on it that would allow the FAA or law enforcement or others to identify who is operating the drone, which of course, makes tons of sense because otherwise there's no way to tell who owns that drone that's flying above your backyard.

SHAPIRO: There was already a regulation since 2015 requiring most drones to be registered. Why did the FAA decide it needed to go farther?

RULE: The difference here is that before, you were required to put something on the drone, physically on the ground so that if the drone fell out of the sky and landed in your backyard or landed on private property, that the finder of that drone would be able to look and identify who its owner was.

The difference here is that now the drone that's operating up in the sky will have something that will be sending a signal that is going to transmit information about who is operating that drone. So it's no longer necessary to actually physically have the drone in your hands to tell who owns it.

SHAPIRO: Would it be pretty easy to modify a drone to put in this technology? Or if somebody has an old technology, are they going to have to buy a whole new drone?

RULE: I do think this is going to be pretty easy to retrofit onto existing drones. And of course, it's going to be a bit of a hassle and inconvenience for all of those millions of people who have already bought a drone. I think there's roughly 1.5 million registered drones in the United States already through the FAA. So there's a lot of people who will have to take that step. But I do think, you know, technologically, that this is absolutely feasible.

SHAPIRO: Is this something that only officials would be able to identify? Or if there's a drone flying over my house, would I be able to, like, point my smartphone at it and find out who it belongs to?

RULE: I think in the short run, it contemplates there being some limitation on who would be able to access this drone-tracking system. And I haven't gone through all 300 pages of this yet, but my sense is that...

SHAPIRO: Merry Christmas.

RULE: ...At least initially - merry Christmas, exactly. I think initially, it's going to be mainly limited to law enforcement or to the FAA, possibly a few others - air traffic control. But eventually, I think this technology could allow for the average person to log online and to look up who it is that's flying this drone over their house. And I think many people would actually probably like that, so that could be coming down the road.

SHAPIRO: So if we dream of a future where pizzas are delivered by drone, does this get us there faster, or does it create more obstacles to that?

RULE: This definitely is a good step in the right direction toward allowing for widespread commercial use of drones. I think the big concern here for those - particularly, I would say cities and states and property rights holders, the concern is that this is one step that's going to ultimately lead to the FAA trying to regulate where and when drones can fly. And that's something that that's been very controversial.

The FAA is getting pressure from Amazon and some of these other large companies to essentially preempt all state and local law and for the FAA to dictate where drones can fly, when they can fly, and basically to eliminate private property rights in the low-altitude airspace above our backyards. And states and local governments have been pushing back for about a decade now, saying, no, no, no. We need to have local involvement, local input.

And so it will be interesting to see whether the FAA tries to continue to sort of manage all of those issues, those local issues, from Washington, or whether it begins to actually allow local governments to step in and handle those things that are inherently local, that have to do with drone regulation.

SHAPIRO: That's Troy Rule, director of the Law and Sustainability Program at Arizona State University Law School.

Thank you.

RULE: Thank you, Ari - appreciate it.