Meet the people who think more drones are a really good idea

For the most part, people don’t like the idea of drones flying in US skies. But many businesses are convinced that, with some education, that will change. For now, however, they’d settle for less government red tape. 

Published Dec. 23, 2015

When real estate photographer Tom Sheehan purchased his DJI Phantom 3 drone over the summer, he had hoped to use the quadcopter to upgrade his business.

“It was the logical next step,” says Mr. Sheehan, who went all-digital with his Norwell, Mass., photography venture in 2005. He envisioned taking bird’s-eye pictures of homes by the coast, using the drone to snap views of the water.

But Sheehan quickly discovered that obstacles stood in the way of flying a drone, particularly for commercial purposes. Among other things, current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations require him to not only obtain an exemption so he can use the drone for business – a process that can take months and cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in consultation fees – but also hire a licensed pilot to fly the drone for him.

“It was discouraging,” Sheehan says. “It’s a big pain in the neck.”

To many in the industry, Sheehan’s story sounds familiar. As more drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), take to the skies, experts are concerned that policy and public awareness have not kept up with the pace of technology. Existing regulations, they say, have yet to strike a balance between enabling the industry to thrive and addressing the technology’s potential consequences.

“Right now it’s kind of a ‘wild west’ in regulation. The technology has moved much more quickly than policy has,” says Lisa Ellman, a public policy lawyer and co-chair of the UAS group at international law firm Hogan Lovells.

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