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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.

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Science

NTSB probes crash that killed 10 in Alabama as storm lashes Southeast

Flash-flooding in Bloomington, Indiana, on Saturday. Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Sunday that it's investigating a fiery multi-vehicle weekend crash in Alabama that killed 10 people, including nine children, as storms swept the Southeast.

The big picture: Saturday's crash on Interstate 65, south of Montgomery, occurred amid a tropical depression that left 13 people dead in Alabama as it triggered flash floods and spawned tornadoes that razed "dozens of homes" over the weekend, per AP.

Laurel Hubbard to become 1st openly trans athlete to compete at Olympics

New Zealand's Laurel Hubbard at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, when she became the first openly transgender athlete to represent NZ. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The New Zealand Olympic Committee has announced that Laurel Hubbard has been selected for the women's weightlifting team for the Tokyo Games — making her the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the event.

The big picture: Hubbard, 43, is part of a five-member Kiwi weightlifting team and will compete in the women's super heavyweight category. Meanwhile, BMX rider Chelsea Wolfe will become the first openly trans athlete to travel to the Olympics with Team USA, when she arrives in Tokyo as a reserve rider.

American Airlines cuts hundreds of flights amid demand surge

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

American Airlines announced Sunday that it's cutting some 950 flights from its schedule, including 296 this weekend, to reduce potential pressure on its operations, the Wall Street Journal first reported.

Driving the news: The U.S. vaccine rollout has led to a massive increase in travel bookings. The airline noted in an emailed statement that it's facing an "incredibly quick ramp up of customer demand."