From the roof of The Daily Dot's headquarters, it's possible to just make out the cluster of skyscrapers of Austin, Texas's bustling downtown.
If I were to stand atop that roof, snap a photo of downtown, and post it here, I wouldn't face any legal repercussions. But if I flew a drone up to that exact same spot, took that exact same picture, and then posted it in the exact same place online, I would be breaking Texas's law against publishing drone photography — unless I could convince the state that I work for a real estate company or the natural gas pipeline business.
I'd also be in violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules that the agency claims ban all commercial drone use in the United States. Then again, a recent court decision just cast into question the FAA's entire ability to regulate drones. Also, the Texas law may be unconstitutional and could crumble to pieces at the first legal challenge.
Trapped inside of this legal and regulatory tangle is what's projected to soon become an $89 billion industry with plans to rocket off into a future where drones do everything from deliver prescription drugs to shoot action shots in next summer's big budget blockbuster.
Until state and federal governments figure out the rules around drones in a reasonable and consistent way, however, anyone attempting to jump on the drone bandwagon will find themselves lost in a maze of confusion.
Behind this regulatory mess is a simple fact: Americans are profoundly uncomfortable with drones. Thanks to the controversial military bombing campaigns in Iraq and Central Asia and the even more controversial domestic spying program, nearly two-thirds of Americans think allowing more drones to fly overhead is a bad idea.
Public safety concerns abound as well. While many of the smaller, low-altitude drones are relatively lightweight, they can still do serious damage — like when an Australian triathlete runner was hospitalized after being hit by a drone that was filming the race. Or the U.K. teenage girl who was killed as a result of being hit in the head with a drone. Or the New York City teenager who died after partially decapitating himself with his drone's propellers.
Then there's invasions of privacy to worry about — strangers peeping into the window of private residences to snap intimate photos.
But if you ask drone advocates, like University of Nebraska journalism professor Matt Waite, all they can see is how a small, remote-controlled flying vehicle could solve a whole litany of problems.
Waite first got into drones thanks to a "happy accident," he said, after he came across "a company offering a fixed-wing plane with a camera on it" at a mapping conference.
"You could use a tablet computer to set a zone for the plane to fly over and then it would go up, take pictures, and assemble them into a single image of the entire area being surveyed," he said.
Waite's mind immediately raced through all of the possibilities this technology could unlock, especially how it could enable journalists to quickly and cheaply capture otherwise expensive, hard-to-get images, like the destruction wrought by tornados or the bird's-eye-view of mass protests like Occupy Wall Street.
‟I immediately took out my wallet, handed it to the guy, and said, ‛Give me one of those right now," Waite recalled with a laugh. ‟The guy replied, ‛Well, it costs to $65,000 and is illegal to use in the United States.'"
Waite went back to the University of Nebraska and set up the Drone Journalism Lab in 2011, where he guides students through building drone platforms as well as "the ethical, legal, and regulatory issues involved in using pilotless aircraft to do journalism."
"At the federal level, very little to do with drones is allowed," Waite noted, adding what leeway does exist makes conducting journalism with drones difficult.
For example, Waite explained, to even get a permit to launch a drone for his program, he has to put in an application with the FAA as much as 60 days in advance. This sort of long lead time makes covering spontaneous, rapidly moving events like natural disasters or street protests legally impossible.
U.S. drone regulation goes back to the years before anyone had heard the term "drone." Back when the FAA first issued an advisory setting guidelines for their operation in the early 1980s, all that existed were simple model airplanes and helicopters. Those initial rules were entirely voluntary and were simply guidlines for hobbyists — stay under 400 feet and avoid the flightpaths of nearby airports.
That system stayed in place for nearly three decades, until the FAA issued a statement in 2007 prohibiting the "commercial" use of drones — as in, using drones to make money — within the United States. According to Brendan Schulman, a New York-based lawyer specializing in drone cases, this new policy was initially created as a placeholder to give the agency time to come up with a permanent set rules governing drones. ‟Here we are, seven years later, and that still hasn't happened," Schulman said.
In 2012, Congress decided to light a fire under the FAA and mandated that it finally implement some more permanent rules about commercial drone use by September 2015.
The FAA planned to release a draft set of rules covering small, lightweight drones by the end of 2014 — that still hasn't happened — with full implementation coming about a year later. Schulman remains skeptical.
"It's clear that the FAA won't finish by 2015," he said.
As you might expect, regulating commercial drone use is tricky. When the FAA first issued its prohibition on commercial drone use, its primary target was very large vehicles flying very high up in the air. Smaller, personal drones — also known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — weren't part of the agency's equation.
Since then, the FAA has shifted its focus to the little, nimble drones that typically only go a few hundred feet off the ground. In doing so, the agency realized it had to invent two different sets of rules for two very different types of drones. The change has caused further delay at the FAA, an already notoriously slow-moving bureaucracy.