Drones

The National Park Service banned drones from national parks Friday. Although they will probably be allowed eventually, at least on some levels, it was the right thing to do. It should also be seen as part of a larger process as the entire nation tries to sort out the proper uses for unmanned aircraft.

What that requires is a deliberate and comprehensive national discussion taking into account everything imaginable that anyone could or might want to do with a drone. The technology underlying drones is moving too fast to sort this out in a reactive way.

Most of the talk so far has been in terms of privacy and the nuisance factor. Jonathan Jarvis, the park service’s director, said, he doesn’t want drones hovering over rock climbers or buzzing around Mount Rushmore – something that has actually happened. We might add, it would also not be welcome to have drones flying in and out of cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.

Jarvis said the policy is temporary until a specific federal regulation can be formulated by the park service, which should take 18 months. But the issue cannot be limited to national parks.

Nor can it be one sided. It is easy to envision situations, even in national parks, in which drones could be useful. Imagine searching for a lost hiker or as an aid to law enforcement or wildlife biologists.

Part of the problem involves the word drone. Most of what Jarvis and others are talking about are essentially model aircraft, toys, that advancing technology has allowed to be fitted with cameras. But in other applications, drone might mean something much different. Some military drones have a wingspan of more than 60 feet, and a number of commercial uses – currently banned – could employ such larger craft.

Under a law enacted by Congress in 2012, the commercial use of drones is to be allowed next year. With that, greatly increased use by law enforcement and domestic military operations is expected.

That points to yet another concern: safety. An investigative report by The Washington Post, publication of which began Friday as a series, delves into the U.S. military’s record operating drones. It is not reassuring.

As the Post reports, since 2001 the U.S. military has lost more than 400 large drones to crashes. The Post, which used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain more than 50,000 pages of government documents, says “Military drones have slammed into homes, farms, runways, highways, waterways and, in one case, an Air Force C-130 Hercules transport plane.”

There are any number of factors at play in this, not the least of which is that drones employ still-evolving technologies. Because of cost and the inherently expendable nature of military drones, they also often lack the back-up systems found on modern airliners.

The military’s drone and its operation of them will no doubt improve. But the problems shown in drones suggest the country not simply throw open its skies to them just yet. Moreover, it suggests that if, how and when they be allowed should be carefully thought through.

The modern air-traffic control system began with the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, which created the Federal Aviation Administration, gave it authority over all U.S. airspace and led to a number of other reforms. Passage of that act was spurred by a 1956 mid-air collision between two airliners over the Grand Canyon. Those reforms were warranted and helpful, but it took what was then the deadliest crash in U.S. history to bring them about.

That is not the decision-making model that should be applied to drones.

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