Clearing up the hazy rules surrounding drones

NASA Ames event draws everyone from Amazon to enthusiasts to discuss unmanned aircraft regulations

Look up in the sky these days and you might just see a drone buzzing around. These small autonomous flyers are getting cheaper and more ubiquitous, but one thing they currently lack is a clear set of boundaries for how and where they can be used.

This week, more than 1,000 attendees are flocking to the NASA Ames Research Center with the goal of zeroing in on better rules and tools for the growing drone market. Considered by some as the industry's premiere event, the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management Convention brought various stakeholders together to discuss a future where the skies are populated with hundreds of little drones.

The global market for drones is already estimated to be a $2.5 billion industry, much of which is derived from the huge push to adopt drones for commercial uses. Nevertheless, aviation rules as set by the FAA are almost entirely based on the days when flying meant formally certified pilots being in the cockpit of an aircraft. The definition of flying has rapidly changed with the advent of drones, which sell for as little as $300. The power and perils of aviation are now open to pretty much anyone, but those newcomers have a hazy set of rules governing the airspace.

Making the firmest pitch of the day, Amazon Vice President Gur Kimchi used his keynote address to urge policymakers to consider reserving the airspace between 200 and 400 feet as an expressway for drones. That airspace is already off-limits for manned aircraft, which normally stay above 1,000 feet except for takeoffs and landings.

"We feel this is a safe and scalable approach," Kimchi said. "This is a call for action. We need to come together as an industry; we have to define and adopt standards for airspace access."

Amazon officials have made it no secret they see unmanned flyers as a game-changer for low-cost and speedy retail delivery. The company has promoted the idea that shoppers could one day receive orders by drone in 30 minutes or less.

Plenty of other corporate interests are also championing drones as the wave of the future. For example, local tech giant Google is racing to develop its own delivery system, announcing recently it had designed a small plane-helicopter hybrid that can carry small packages. Some reports indicate even Taco Bell is considering drones as a way to deliver hot food orders. Those high-flying ideas have generated many headlines, but regulators have been vague about which uses they would find acceptable.

Little clarity was provided Tuesday at the NASA event's initial round of talks. In his introductory remarks, Edward Bolton, Jr., Federal Aviation Administration assistant administrator, said that his team is committed to working with the commercial interests. He explained that a stakeholder group is working a final set of proposed regulations, but he avoided specifics on what was being considered. Above everything else, the FAA considers public safety its top priority, he said.

"This is absolutely the dawn of a new era," Bolton declared. "We have a cultural change and mentality that's excited about being aggressive to make things happen."

It seemed like if there was a theme for the drone event's first day, it was that there are more looming questions than answers surrounding the technology. Case in point, a morning panel focused on the myriad of legal, public-safety and privacy issues surrounding drone use.

Diana Cooper, an attorney with the firm LaBarge Weinstein, pointed out that case law still hasn't addressed drone use. For now, much of the legal precedent surrounded airspace came from a 70-year-old U.S. Supreme Court case spurred by a chicken farmer angry at military planes flying low over his property. For the most part, drones remain in a legal and policy limbo that still needs to be sorted out, she said.

"The (law) is very vague on where the line is drawn between public and private airspace – Operators don't know how close they can fly," Cooper said. "It's an open question how these emerging technologies would change this calculus."

For some attendees, it seemed a no-brainer that a new technology's challenges should have a technological solution. Various exhibits at the convention promoted ideas for how a ground-based air-control system could manage hundreds of drones, preventing them from flying near airports or into each other. Others pitched early-stage mapping tools that would allow property owners to forbid drones from flying over their land.

There have been a plethora of examples of drone operators becoming a nuisance by photographing unwilling bystanders or pestering emergency responders, but it's been less clear when they are breaking the law. In recent days, firefighters in San Bernardino County blamed a group of drone operators for getting in the way of aircraft trying to douse brush fires. The incident sparked multiple state law proposals to add tougher penalties or allow fire officials to shoot down drones that fly into restricted areas.

Bill English, an investigator with the National Traffic Safety Board, indicated it was only a matter of time before some major event forced a larger public discussion on drone usage.

"If we have that situation say a (drone) gets loose on a soccer field with 10-year-olds you will see a media and political circus the likes of which you have never seen before," he said.

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3 people like this
Posted by Concerned Citizen
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2015 at 2:29 pm

What everyone fails to discuss is this:

1. They are talking about thousands of these flying over our heads all the time. They have already called it "swarming".

2. Do you want to look up and see thousands of these buzzing overhead. Can you image the sight and noise? An aerial freeway in the sky like something right out of star wars.

3. Are you prepared for Google using Moffett Airfield and the surrounding community for testing these?

11 people like this
Posted by Noise Pollution
a resident of Bailey Park
on Jul 29, 2015 at 2:32 pm

Nobody has ever gone to a pretty place in nature, settled in to enjoy the views, and then stated "Oh good, someone with a drone just showed up"
Some of them are like flying chainsaws.

3 people like this
Posted by dennis
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 29, 2015 at 4:06 pm

This is just the beginning. Robotics only seen in science fiction will someday be reality of such proportions the Jetsons will seem like the Flintstones.

6 people like this
Posted by Futurist
a resident of Bailey Park
on Jul 29, 2015 at 4:53 pm

No Dennis, the Microwave oven was the beginning, this is the progression.
It will actually make Star Wars look like the Jetsons with some Battle Star Galactica thrown in

Oh also, drones should not be allowed on a commercial level, and hobby drones need to be regulated and traceable, but banned in residential or natural areas.

5 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jul 29, 2015 at 7:07 pm

Who thinks Vladimir Putin, the juvenile delinquent in charge of North Korea, ISIS and home-grown extortionists are going to obey rules and NOT use potentially anonymous "commercial" drones to spy on, threaten and-or kill Americans in all 50 states plus Washington DC?

7 people like this
Posted by @Gary
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jul 29, 2015 at 7:19 pm

You mean they wouldn't have other means at their disposal?

Go easy on the Tom Clancy stuff, sport.

11 people like this
Posted by Tweety Bird
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 29, 2015 at 7:59 pm

And what of the birds? Where will they fly? Or are they not in any one's plans for the future?

5 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jul 29, 2015 at 10:49 pm

There is no more effective and less expensive way to spy on, extort and murder Americans with impunity than by using anonymous "commercial" drones. But, gee, if there is a FAA regulation against such uses, I guess that just solves the problem! The important point is that someone will profit from the use of drones and even the destruction of America - including anti-drone manufacturers. What was it that Forrest Gump's mother told him: stupid is as stupid does.

7 people like this
Posted by @Gary
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jul 29, 2015 at 11:31 pm

You do realize that nothing you've said so far makes sense, right? Right?

Seriously -- lay off the Alex Jones stuff. You'll be better off for it.

3 people like this
Posted by Ignorant Citizen
a resident of Cuernavaca
on Jul 29, 2015 at 11:53 pm

I agree with Gary one hundred percent!

3 people like this
Posted by Robyn
a resident of another community
on Jul 30, 2015 at 2:08 pm

Let them fly along train tracks and freeways. There is too much disruption of peace and quiet here.
What are acceptable means to keep them from flying over our property?

3 people like this
Posted by Concerning
a resident of Bailey Park
on Jul 31, 2015 at 9:09 am

My friend in Gilroy had one hovering over his 12 and 14 year old daughters as they laid by the pool in their backyard, waggling it back and forth in an obvious attempt to engage them.
We need the ability to block the radio waves they use to communicate over our yards.

3 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 31, 2015 at 10:51 am

The technology for small, limited-range guided missiles is cheaper than many people realize and in particular, cheaper than the drones they would be useful against. Multiple possible homing mechanisms exist, even sound might be feasible, I am thinking of a very simple sensor array used in a closed-loop 2-D nulling mode. . .

3 people like this
Posted by Kimberly
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jul 31, 2015 at 11:52 am

People are also using the term drone interchangeable for real unmanned crafts versus hobby quadrocopters. I will start swatting those camera'd quadrocopters out of the air if weirdos don't quit following me down the street with them.

9 people like this
Posted by Tool of the Sicko Pervs
a resident of Jackson Park
on Jul 31, 2015 at 3:10 pm

They are like Google Glass, only for people who do not want their true identity known.

9 people like this
Posted by True
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jul 31, 2015 at 4:16 pm

True is a registered user.


Some of you need to add another layer to your tinfoil hats.

7 people like this
Posted by It can't stay like this
a resident of Bailey Park
on Jul 31, 2015 at 4:55 pm

In Los Altos we watched one pause, come back then quickly "scan" directly over my neighbors minor daughter and friend in their bikinis before speeding off. While the girls grabbed towels and ran inside in an obvious state of violation. There was zero mirth or amusement in anyway. It was terribly invasive and disturbing to both girls.

I really think there does need to be regulations surrounding their ability to peer into people's backyards or into their homes through their windows demands this.

3 people like this
Posted by @bailey park ickiness
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 31, 2015 at 9:13 pm

"In Los Altos we watched one pause, come back then quickly "scan" directly over my neighbors minor daughter and friend in their bikinis before speeding off. "

I presume you saw all of this in your binoculars while you were "bird watching"? Oh, so sorry the quad interrupted your fun!

14 people like this
Posted by Ew!
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Aug 1, 2015 at 6:11 am

Did someone just defend flying a camera into someone's yard to leer at their children while they swim?
I think they did. Check that guy's internet history!

8 people like this
Posted by @Ew!
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Aug 1, 2015 at 3:56 pm

I think the point was that the Bailey Park individual who complained about a quad buzzing his NEIGHBOR'S daughter and friend begs the question why HE was watching those little girls himself!?

It seems that the quad alerted the girls to this individuals peeping. Score one for technology!

5 people like this
Posted by @@EW!
a resident of Bailey Park
on Aug 1, 2015 at 4:51 pm

OMG, Baily Park is the top of the list so many people pick that one as default to minimize the hoops the voice has us jump through just to get a comment up. Unless comments about a story are pertinent to a specific neighborhood, it really makes no difference where someone actually lives or what drop down choice they pick.

Now, that you have failed to kill the messenger, you can comment about the sicko using his quad to spy on minors in their own yard...a friend of yours who you share your quad pics with?

11 people like this
Posted by Another Thing
a resident of another community
on Aug 1, 2015 at 5:59 pm

Here's one solution: Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by Oscar
a resident of another community
on Aug 1, 2015 at 6:36 pm

Getting in the way, spying/invading privacy, extorting (money and prisoners), murdering anonymously. Those are uses to worry about. But the profiteers will not stop their rhetoric and lies unless and until they are stopped by public outcry and the ouster of corrupt politicians.

7 people like this
Posted by They will make new laws
a resident of Bailey Park
on Aug 3, 2015 at 3:09 pm

I would expect the continued use of these as well an increase in the number of stories such as can be seen above will mandate new privacy laws.
The protection of minors in their own house will demand that.

These are EXTREMELY invasive if in the wrong hands, and so far all we have to protect ourselves is hope that the guy behind the controls won't be pervert.

6 people like this
Posted by Watch the watchers
a resident of Bailey Park
on Aug 3, 2015 at 7:57 pm

Hopefully the drones will continue to scare away the anti-copter guy above who admitted to watching his neighbor's daughter.

This is a very common trend. Technological breakthroughs that allow surveillance are reviled by criminals and lawbreakers.

3 people like this
Posted by Huh?
a resident of Cuernavaca
on Aug 4, 2015 at 7:17 am

I think people need reading comprehension lessons here, but the stories about invasive drones are pretty disturbing. What are our options to guard against these creeps? Can we knock them out of the sky once they are over our yard? block the signal?
I love the idea of shooting them down like they do in TX, but that's not going to work due to safety and legal concerns.
How else can we knock them out? There's got to be some sort of jamming perimeter we can establish around our yards.

7 people like this
Posted by Secured Perimiter
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Aug 4, 2015 at 11:43 am

I will absolutely attempt to disable any drone that invades my yard.
I have a VERY high powered water cannon...and we don't want a fire so I'll have to make sure it's completely doused. Just come to my front door in person and ask for it back.

The state may get permission to jam their signals since they have been interfering with wildfire fighting:
Web Link

Some very inexpensive jammers can also be made and unless someone is looking for it, the source of the short term jamming "burst" would be very hard to detect. Legal risk is involved with jamming though, for now, but only if they can catch you.

3 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Whisman Station
on Aug 5, 2015 at 4:29 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Wrong on the numbers.

Web Link

Less than $20 to get started. a CAMERA DRONE for $53.99.


4 Days

17 Hours



DM007 2.4G 4CH 6 Axis With 5MP Camera Headless Mode RC Quadcopter

$53.99 /$58.99

The response:

Web Link

The FAA doe not own the airspace above your land. It just PERMITS the airspace over your land to be used. You can pin down any FAA person with this FACT.

Quite a while ago, when I lived in MV, the cops got a new toy to play with called a " Midnight Sun " spotlight. For a while, the cops were playing voyeur with that searchlight, peering into backyards, often waking people in the middle of the night, that sort of abuse of their new toy.
A group of us got together with QA tested bad lasers from Spectra Physics.
We all just waited until the chopper using the spotlight came close and then we let that chopper have it, 5 500 mW lasers all at once. That canopy turned a bright red and we scattered. It took several tries and the cops got the message and the Bay area and Silicon Valley saw that light was used for lawful purpose like chasing a criminal across property line. No to ogle midnight nude bathers.

Start with registering your property with that link I gave you.

Then REQUIRE the no-fly zone from 0 feet to over 500 feet OVER MOUNTAIN VIEW CITY LIMITS. That gets rid of the aerial " Peeping Toms ". You can exempt flights for commercial and government use. Make it legal for citizens to " shoot down " drones with a HERF cannon. You have all the " bright boys ", equipment and the knowledge you need to make simple, short LOW RANGE HERF cannons. Google ( it owns YouTube ) has some examples with lousy, UNTUNED ANTENNAE. Silicon Valley people would know how to make a proper HERT cannon to do the job. Now the CITY has to it's job as well.

The application of technology to a technology created problem.

5 people like this
Posted by @the_punnisher
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2017 at 1:58 pm

You pointed a laser at a police helicopter? You're lucky you're not still in jail. It's a felony, and the FBI will pay me $10000 to report you.

Web Link

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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