The flight of the registry

If you receive a drone for the holidays this year, or if you own one already, you’ll need to register your name, physical address, and e-mail address with the Federal Aviation Administration, starting today, the 21st of December. You will then have to add a unique number to each drone you possess.  The reason given is the potential for a drone to interfere with piloted aircraft, as has occurred in aerial firefighting efforts recently.

There is likely to be a lawsuit over this new regulation, since the FAA’s authority to regulate drones isn’t clear, and much of the argument from drone owners sounds exactly like what we gun rights supporters have been saying for a long time.  People will ignore the rules; drones will be constructed by hobbyists in their homes, a new database charging a fee to register is a fine way to tax people without promising any good—and I’ll add, since the registry numbers aren’t serial numbers etched into the material by manufacturers, removing them wouldn’t be too hard for someone intending to do harm with a drone.

Drone is an unfortunate word, since it originally referred to the male honey bee whose only function is to mate with the queen.  The word has the figurative sense of a lazy worker.  It was first used to identify a pilotless aircraft in 1946, though such vehicles might better have been called workers, if we wanted a more apt analogy.  Perhaps the idea of calling a mindless object, controlled from outside, a worker didn’t fit with our work ethic.  People aware of the cultural influence of Star Trek will also think of the Borg drones, who should have been called workers as well.

But today, the drone on the minds of most of us is the aircraft, varying widely in size and function, but piloted remotely by a human being who is safe on the ground, whether in a military facility thousands of miles away or nearby with a hand-held radio controller.

The problems arise from the question of potentially competing rights created by drones.  The airspace over our properties is not exactly ours, under U.S. law, except when it is.  Aircraft operators have the right to travel through the skies, even over land you own, so long as they are following flight rules and do not “interfere unreasonably with the possessor’s enjoyment of the surface of the earth and the air space above it.”  Unreasonably being the key and contentious word.

In Florida v. Riley (1988), the Supreme Court declared that a police helicopter hovering some 400 feet above a greenhouse did not constitute a search, since the FAA allows helicopters to fly at that altitude and even lower.  And while you may file a lawsuit if someone buzzes your property with a drone, shooting it down could be against the law.  In passing, let’s note the lawyers write the rules.

As a gun owner and as a supporter of rights, I do feel sympathetic with people who fly drones as a hobby, as a part of their research, or as a means of conducting commerce, such as what has been considering.  And as always with the government’s efforts to swoop in and regulate in a ham-handed way, I have to point out that really dangerous people get around the regulations.  But drones are not guns any more than cars are, and since drones are using the public airspace, some measure of regulation may be warranted here.

Take note of the word, some.  The demand that we must DO SOMETHING! ® is all too powerful for some people, derived from the belief that government can solve all problems and from the wish to control what those people over there are doing.  With regard to the publicly held airspace, some regulation may be needed.  But those of us who value rights and liberties would appreciate—and be less inclined to oppose—intelligent regulations that take into account the interests of all parties involved and that are the minimum needed to accomplish a specific good, rather than sweeping new powers imposed just in case.

Given the state of affairs these days, I expect instead to see onerous rules challenged in the courts for years.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of