Drones are a big business and getting bigger, a reality that comes with both economic opportunities and risks. The UAV market is set to jump from $5.2 billion in 2013 to $11.6 billion in 2023. Opportunities for delivery services, cinematography, and even flying cell towers could introduce thousands of jobs and reinvigorate an ailing aerospace market.

At the same time, drone sales to hobbyists have exploded. Registered drone operators in the US now outnumber registered manned aircraft. In tandem with that growth, close calls with commercial aircraft have more than doubled in the past two years. An analysis of FAA reports by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone counts 28 instances in which pilots changed course in order to avoid a collision.

To reap the benefits of this boom, and ward off its downsides, American regulators must create clear and directed drone policies. The slow response by the Federal Aviation Administration to address these issues puts America’s interests in encouraging a vibrant commercial drones marketplace at risk.

WIRED Opinion


Professor Mary “Missy” Cummings, a former US Navy A-4 and F/A-18 pilot, is the Director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University and a member of the Stimson Center’s Task Force on US Drone Policy.

For example, Chinese businesses have been using drones to deliver packages for years, but the FAA’s sluggish response in allowing that kind of business has led many US drone manufacturers, with no ability to compete with their Chinese counterparts, to move their testing programs off-shore.

As a former Navy fighter pilot and now the director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke, I’ve spent 20 years watching and shaping the evolution of modern aircraft. For more than a decade, researchers like me have warned the FAA that the rise of UAVs, more commonly known as drones, would be disruptive. From Amazon deliveries to search and rescue operations, the technology will significantly affect society.

In 2014, I served as a member of the bipartisan task force on US drone policy convened by the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank. The task force examined the strategic implications of American policy, from targeted killing abroad to regulating domestic airspace. We developed eight realistic and achievable policy solutions for various government agencies, including the FAA, to produce policy that matches our long-term security and economic interests. Unfortunately, those agencies have made little progress.

The FAA exemplifies that lack of response. With the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, Congress gave the agency until September 2015 to ensure the safe integration of unmanned systems into national airspace. The FAA blew the deadline, and though it still hasn’t delivered, the Senate is working on a bill that may bring some closure, albeit imperfect. It now allows some commercial drone use by issuing individual exemptions—hardly a comprehensive approach. In a recent report grading progress on the task force’s recommendations, the Stimson Center gave the FAA a C.

So what can be done to address this and other shortcomings in our drone policy? First, the Obama administration should lead a comprehensive interagency review of military and commercial trends in drones. With the booming commercial market and expanding military applications, such a review would identify the evolution of drone technology and lead to an overall strategy for increased research and development in order to ensure US dominance in this rapidly growing international technology race.

Second, the Obama administration must continue to reform its export control rules. The administration developed a new export control policy that requires recipients of drones to operate them in line with international law, but the policy remains opaque. Clearer distinctions, such as those between military and commercial drones, would reduce regulatory obstacles.

Third, the FAA can accelerate efforts under the 2012 Modernization and Reform Act to integrate drones into civilian airspace. Its lumbering response carries potential economic and security cost. If these policies are not fixed, the US is not likely to remain the world’s leading innovator of UAV technologies. The FAA must streamline and accelerate its process to support the industry at home.

The history of technological innovation is filled with great advances in physics and engineering that far outpaced the legal frameworks to guide them, shape them, and, at their best, help them flourish. Drones are a tool. If used wisely, aided by smart policies, they will lead to tremendous economic and military opportunities. The Obama administration can leave an important and lasting legacy on drones. But much more effort is needed to do so.

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America, Regulate Drones Now or Get Left Behind