Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Day of drone well upon us

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Amazon's delivery drones might or might not ever buzz around your neighbourhood dropping off packages, but they sure have generated plenty of buzz in the week since the mega-retailer cannily unveiled them on CBS' 60 Minutes.

Unlike the remote-controlled aircraft that track and kill terrorists overseas, domestic drones offer a range of non-violent missions, from delivering smartphones and tracking fires to dusting crops and finding kids lost in the woods.

So make no mistake, drones are coming to American skies, if not doorsteps any time soon. Some small businesses already use drones to photograph real estate, monitor farms or do aerial shots for movies, even though commercial use is still technically illegal, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The issues are much more complicated than Amazon makes them sound, and the hype is outrunning concerns about safety and privacy.

Right now, for example, there are no broad rules for allowing unmanned aircraft to mix with airliners, business jets and small planes. That's a challenge, especially when it comes to avoiding midair collisions.

The FAA permits substantial government use of drones inside the USA for border surveillance and other jobs, but these are sophisticated and expensive aircraft with ground-based pilots in contact with air traffic controllers who can guide them away from other planes.

Smaller drones flown by individuals or small businesses get around this problem by flying under the rules for radio-controlled model planes: They must stay far from airports, remain within sight of their operator and not go above 400 feet (because manned aircraft can fly as low as 500 feet). That works fine for many missions, but it wouldn't allow Amazon (or Walmart or Best Buy or any other company that could afford its own air force) to deliver packages miles from a warehouse.

The FAA, which the drone industry claims has dragged its feet in developing safety rules, got orders from Congress last year to begin opening the skies to unmanned aircraft by September 2015. The FAA promises draft regulations for small drones by early next year, with rules for larger drones to follow. Even so, it could be years before rules are finalized, and even a casual look at news accounts shows businesses are already way ahead of the FAA in deploying drones, legally or not.

Beyond safety, the other big unresolved issue is privacy. In the past year, according to an ACLU roundup, 43 states have considered 96 drone-related bills, most of them about privacy. Eight states have passed laws, most to require law enforcement officials to get a warrant before tracking people with drones.

In some places, people aren't waiting for the law. In Berks County, Pa., an animal rights group recording a pigeon hunt posted a YouTube video that shows its drone being shot out of the sky by hunters. And in Colorado, almost a thousand people have applied and paid for a small town's proposed drone-hunting licence that doesn't yet exist.

The drones aren't just coming, they're here. If authorities want to avoid the aerial equivalent of the Wild West, they would do well to move their rule-making along.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2013 A9

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