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EDITORIAL: Flightless foul: FAA stifles drones

Right now, Nevada stands on the cutting edge of the drone industry. A drone program at Creech Air Force Base employs 250 pilots and crew members, and in June, Nevada was designated as one of just six states that the Federal Aviation Administration approved to host drone testing. This fall, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas launched a drone studies minor program, and the University of Nevada, Reno started its drone minor last January.

The state is already benefiting from the technology, and businesses large and small, here and nationwide, could be transformed in countless ways that would be a boon for the economy and consumers.

But only if the FAA allows it, and it doesn’t look like that’s happening anytime soon. As reported by the Wall Street Journal’s Jack Nicas and Alistair Barr, the agency is expected to propose rules this month that would severely limit commercial use of drones — the area where they could have the most significant effect. The regulations would likely preclude delivery drones being developed by Amazon and Google, and would also mandate that operators have pilot licenses and limit flights to daytime hours below 400 feet and within sight of the person at the controls.

In other words, legal users would basically be glorified remote-control airplane hobbyists, hanging out at a local park.

Beyond harsh, these regulations are ridiculous. In particular, pairing the licensed pilot requirement with forbidding drone use outside the sight of the operator makes no sense. If you’re going to allow only pilots to operate drones — which defeats the purpose of the technology, because it’s designed to be easy to operate — why wouldn’t it be safe for licensed pilots to fly drones great distances?

Drone technology could be applied to help businesses curb costs and help consumers save money. Think delivery of small products across short distances, or for pipeline and agricultural monitoring, or as security apparatus for large companies. Wedding photographers and real estate agents already recognize the economic impact, and some are using the technology despite the current ban on it. Rather than promote such possibilities, the FAA is looking to make the industry prohibitively costly through licensing and usage regulations — calling cards of government at all levels.

The FAA has no compelling reason to come down so hard on an emerging industry with so much potential, and there is no way for the FAA to enforce such strict regulations in an equal and fair manner. As it is, the FAA can’t enforce the current ban on commercial uses of drones. The regulations being proposed will crush so many applications that it will practically stop the industry in its tracks.

Nevadans have long said that the state must diversify its economy. Drone technology can be a major part of such diversification. If the FAA follows through with this crushing overreach, the 2015 GOP-led Congress should overturn the regulations through legislation — with Nevada’s delegation leading the charge.

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