Why Doesn’t the Government Regulate Baseballs Instead of Drones?

At first glance, this might seem to be a ridiculous question. After all, baseball is our national pastime, while drones are flying peeping toms at best, airliner-endangering menaces at worst, at least according to the headlines. But hear me out on this. By any rational measure, drones (non-military ones) are far less likely to cause injury than baseballs. According to an article in the Boston Globe more than 1,750 spectators are injured by baseballs at major league games every year. How many people are injured by drones in that same year? According to the LA Times, the FAA has only found 20 alleged injuries to investigate as of September, 2015.

So, why does our government ignore the dangers of hurtling sports equipment and go full-bore after small remote-controlled aircraft?

I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that the reason is public perception, fueled by the media. After all, the majority of people don’t own or operate drones, and if they do, most of them use it only for recreational purposes. Their experience of drones, then, comes largely through the media. The media, as usual, tends to focus on the catastrophic, certainly not the positive. It seems they have found the public’s fear of drones to be something that they can pander to.  Baseball, on the other hand, doesn’t fit that bill.

The only media mention I could find of a baseball-caused injury, that Boston Globe article from last year, resulted from a multi-million-dollar lawsuit being filed because of an alleged very serious injury.  On the other hand, it seems like every single time a drone causes even the slightest damage or injury, it makes headlines.  When pieces of a drone fell onto a toddler and caused a bruise and a cut, the LA Times carried the story. Recently, an airliner reportedly collided with a drone in England (it was just a matter of time, after all).  The drone apparently shattered against the large aircraft without causing any damage, just as drone proponents have always claimed would happen, but the volume of the public outcry doubled in intensity and the media responded with headlines like “British Air Drone Collision Sounds Alarm for New Regulations”.  (A Popular Science writer, on the other hand, argued that the danger is actually miniscule.)

“Something has to be done” comes the public outcry, so the government, in the form of the FAA, does something.  What it does, however, doesn’t, in my opinion, make us any safer, and it does cause harm to legitimate businesses.  Why do I say that?  Because there are already plenty of laws that make people responsible for negligently causing injury to others, and that would include doing it by way of a drone.   We don’t need more laws that do the same thing.  However, the FAA has: 1.  Made it illegal to use a drone in business (with certain exemptions; more on that in a minute), 2.  Required anybody who owns a drone, even a toy, to register with the FAA, and 3.  Made it a federal felony punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and $277,500 in civil and criminal fines to fail to do so.  The last two requirements are just silly.  That drone you bought your kid last Christmas has put you at risk of becoming a felon and spending three years in a federal penitentiary.

The first requirement is what’s putting shackles on the American commercial drone industry and the companies who would make use of this technology.  You can get a “Rule 333 exemption” and use your drone for a business purpose, but it currently takes about six months to go through the process, and you have to have become a licensed pilot, or have one as part of your team.  In other words, in order to be able to fly a 5 pound drone, you also have to be able to fly a Cessna that can carry 4 passengers!   (Or have somebody with you, watching you, that has those qualifications.  Which makes sense, because the pilot won’t know how to fly a drone, as opposed to an airplane, unless he or she has been trained to fly one.)  As a result, there are only about 3,000 companies in the whole country that have been able to meet these qualifications.  On top of that, even once you get that exemption, you can’t fly the drone farther than you can see it, you can’t fly it at night, you can’t fly it over people, and you can’t flyer it at heights over 400 feet.  That means that drones can’t be used in many of the situations, such as inspecting pipelines and such, in which they would be of the most value.

Are these regulations really hampering business that much?  They are according to the FAA itself.  In its official report, FAA Aerospace Forecast, Fiscal Years 2016-2036, the FAA states that sales of commercial drones will jump from 600,000 annually to two and a half million annually–just as soon as the FAA creates regulations that let business use drones.  I think that pretty much proves my point.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to reasonable regulations. In fact, in addition to being the founder and CEO of a company in the commercial drone segment, I’m also a consumer law attorney.  My law practice is devoted to using consumer protection laws to help my clients who have been sold defective automobiles. But the key word here is “reasonable” and part of what my legal training and four decades of law practice has taught me is how to tell the difference between reasonable and unreasonable regulation. What we’re faced with here, as business people who want to use drones for our businesses, is not reasonable, and it’s the result of public pressure caused by unfounded public fear.

A drone is nothing but a tool, and it can be used for constructive purposes or destructive purposes, to spy on your neighbor or to find a lost hiker. A hammer can be used to kill a man or to build a house to shelter him.  It’s not the tool that’s destructive or beneficial, it’s the choices of the tool-wielder.  You don’t take the tool out of their hand because of fear. Responsible businesses should be allowed to operate drones in a reasonable manner, with reasonable precautions, just like businesses use hammers, and earth-moving machinery and high-voltage equipment—and baseballs.

Here’s my message to the FAA—it’s time to play ball.

© 2016 Doug Sohn and Sohn Systems, Inc.