Last month a Seattle woman said that a drone made her nervous because it was flying outside of her window. Early media reports called the device a flying “Peeping Tom.” Soon afterwards, national reports exploded with more than one hundred stories, focused mostly on the news media’s construction of a privacy violation. Now, the photograph of the flight has been provided to Forbes, and it shows that the company flying the drone was merely making a panoramic photograph of the city skyline. The arc of this story — a buzzworthy first report, that later ends up being false— is emblematic of many drone related stories which threaten to jeopardize the nascent industry.
Many innovators developing drone technology are frustrated by the FAA’s backwards regulations which privilege the use of drones for fun (for example acrobatic flights over a farm), but prohibit the use of drones for business (for example level flights to photograph a farmers crops).
While flights over populated areas may raise safety or privacy issues, flights over farms or in remote areas seem far less problematic, yet FAA regulations still prohibit them. Industry analysts are hopeful that the FAA will treat small drones, operated within the line of sight of the operator, differently than large drones that fly autonomously (like the Amazon drones). The FAA however, has already missed a series of deadlines, and has announced they may miss a Congressionally imposed deadline for crafting regulations for small drones.
The issues raised by drone related journalism are an inherently complex mixture of technology, laws, regulations and policy questions. Those issues are complicated by the fact that the placeholder term “drone” is a proxy for dozens of variations of flying devices. While the average reader may generally understand that drones refers to flying devices lacking an onboard operator, the term can mean anything from small remote controlled paper airplanes, to consumer quadcopters, to hand launched law enforcement drones, all the way up to military style Predators and Reapers and even stratospheric systems like Google’s solar powered high altitude drones. In light of this legal and technological complexity, those of us who cover drones need to do a better job of carefully evaluating first reports, and where we get it wrong we need to make sure we’re correcting the record. The success or failure of an industry may depend on it.