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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 1 hour ago - Economy & Business

The billionaire balloon

Data: World Inequality Report 2022; Chart: Axios Visuals

The super-rich are getting stupid rich: New data out today shows the share of global wealth held by the richest slice of humanity swelled by almost a full percentage point during the pandemic.

Driving the news: The top 0.01% of individuals now hold about 11% of the world's wealth, compared to just over 10% in 2020, according to the "World Inequality Report 2022," written by Lucas Chancel, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.

Tina Reed, author of Vitals
1 hour ago - Health

Omicron gives a shot to boosters

Expand chart
Data: CDC; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Vaccination rates have ticked higher since the discovery of the Omicron variant, CDC data shows.

By the numbers: The seven-day average for vaccinations in the U.S. reached about 1.8 million on Monday, up from an average of about 1.3 million a month ago.

Scoop: Over 200 papers quietly sue Big Tech

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Newspapers all over the country have been quietly filing antitrust lawsuits against Google and Facebook for the past year, alleging the two firms monopolized the digital ad market for revenue that would otherwise go to local news. 

Why it matters: What started as a small-town effort to take a stand against Big Tech has turned into a national movement, with over 200 newspapers involved across dozens of states.