May 19, 2021 - Economy & Business

Drones set off a land rush in the sky

Drone light show promoting Genesis luxury car brand's arrival in Shanghai.
Drone light show promoting Genesis luxury car brand's arrival in Shanghai. Photo: Genesis

Commercial drones have barely taken off, but there's already a fight brewing over who will control — and potentially profit from — the airspace in which they’ll fly.

Why it matters: Communities and companies right now are hashing out the rules and norms that will shape where and how drones transform the skyscape over the next decade.

The big picture: Drones are already used by the military, but they could transform daily work across a host of industries, from insurers inspecting storm damage to retailers delivering packages. They can also perform choreographed light shows or display digital billboards in the sky.

  • Hyundai’s luxury brand, Genesis, for example, celebrated its recent arrival in China by using a record 3,281 illuminated drones to create its logo and the image of a car over Shanghai’s skyline.
  • Another Chinese company displayed a floating QR code that linked to a gaming site, in a scene right out of "Blade Runner."

Yes, but: As with other innovations like self-driving cars, drone technology is advancing faster than the legal framework meant to regulate it.

  • The Federal Aviation Administration only recently issued rules allowing small drones to fly over people and at night. But they still can't fly beyond the line of sight of the operator.
  • That renders the drones fairly useless to most businesses — unless they can obtain a waiver, which the FAA decides on a case-by-case basis.

With the federal government moving slowly, some state and local lawmakers want to set their own rules.

  • Just as communities can limit someone from riding a skateboard on the sidewalk, local officials argue they should be able to set rules about flying a drone over their community.
  • Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia are among states proposing laws that would charge fees to lease airspace directly above public roads —essentially creating “toll lanes" in the sky.

The drone industry strongly objects, saying the FAA should have sole responsibility for managing airspace throughout the U.S.

  • "This is a nascent industry, with huge opportunities for growth. If you start taxing it before it gets off the ground, you’re going to kill it," says Michael Robbins of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The intrigue: The question of legal jurisdiction over drone airspace is not quite so cut and dried, however, according to a September 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan federal agency that serves as the investigative arm of Congress.

  • The FAA claims responsibility for air safety “from the ground up,” including drone operations, the report notes.
  • Yes, but: A 1946 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court related to low-flying airplanes found that a landowner “owns” and has “exclusive control” of the “immediate reaches” of airspace over his property. 
  • With drones expected to fly below 400 feet, the legal questions are unresolved, GAO found.

The bottom line: Public safety is at stake over these open questions, but so is the freedom to gaze upward and not be disturbed by buzzing machine swarms or assaulted by aerial ad images.

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