Proliferation of drones requires swift and powerful response

By Marc Debbaudt

There’s no question that small drones serve some legitimate purposes.

They can perform tasks that are dangerous for pilots of manned aircraft, such as powerline and smokestack inspections. They can film movie scenes that can’t be filmed by helicopters. And, for the average person, they can be a fun toy to play with.

But therein lies the problem: One person’s fun is another person’s danger. In August, a hobby drone forced a LAPD helicopter to take evasive action while searching for a suspect in Hollywood.  Drones are a real danger every time the LAPD deploys one of their 17 helicopters.

FAA statistics show that pilots have reported almost three times as many drone sightings in the first eight months of 2015 than they reported in all of 2014. Many of the reports were around busy airports such as LAX. It is not just police helicopters that are in danger; drones have also interfered with aircraft fighting wildfires, and medical helicopters. If a bird can damage an aircraft engine or windshield, we can only imagine what a drone could do. The results could be deadly.

Drones also can endanger innocent bystanders on the ground. In September, an 11 month-old girl was injured by a quadcopter that crashed on a Pasadena street.

One of the main problems is that many drone operators have no aviation experience and are ignorant of the rules for safe flying. But clearly, some people simply don’t give a damn that their actions could threaten the safety of hundreds of others.

It’s likely the problem is going to get worse before it gets better. Industry groups are predicting that hundreds of thousands of drones will be sold in the U.S. this holiday season. That means hundreds of thousands of additional people with no aviation knowledge are suddenly going to have access to the airspace.

There are other causes for concern beyond the threats posed by ignorant drone operators. What about the terrorist or criminal who attaches a gun or bomb to a drone? And what about privacy? What is going to stop a pervert from using a camera-equipped drone to peek in on a woman who’s changing her clothes in her bedroom or a busy-body from snooping on what the neighbors are doing in their back yard?

The FAA announced in October that they’re going to require most small, personal drones to be registered, just like manned aircraft. This is a positive step. Knowing your name is linked to your drone will probably spur some people to think twice about their actions.

But the devil is in the details. Which drones are going to be exempt from registration? Will registration apply to drones that were bought before the requirement takes effect? How are they going to ensure people actually register their drones? What about drones that are sold second-hand? And how would registration actually prevent people from flying illegally, irresponsibly or immorally?

There won’t be any single solution to drone safety. It’s going to take registration. It’s going to take education. And, above all, it’s going to take the strongest possible civil and criminal penalties against people who break the rules or who fail to register their drones.

Accordingly, public safety agencies and organizations and support any and all local, state and federal ordinances and laws that would impose penalties against people who misuse drones or fly them irresponsibly.

The FAA recently announced a $1.9 million fine against a company that illegally operated drones over New York and Chicago. I hope this sends a powerful message.  While I am disappointed that Governor Jerry Brown recently vetoed a bill that limits the use of drones unauthorized drones in emergency zones, public safety organizations will continue to support legislation that prohibits civilians from flying drones over wildfires, schools and prisons.

Enacting swift and forceful punishment will be the most effective method of deterring irresponsible behavior.  While punishment is not the only answer, sadly only when people start going to jail or pay crippling fines for dangerous or improper drone operations will the message really be driven home.

Marc Debbaudt is President of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys . The view and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ADDA which represents nearly 1,000 Los Angeles deputy district attorneys.

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