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Like the owls that deliver packages and carry messages in Harry Potter’s world, drones are about to become commonplace in ours: small, flying objects perfectly engineered to drop off burritos, pick up prescriptions and photograph revolutions. Within the next three years, drone-driven commerce will amount to $13.6 billion and create 70,000 new jobs, an industry trade group estimates.
There is turbulence ahead, however. The Federal Aviation Administration has been asserting for years that it has broad authority over drones but hasn’t been able to come up with any rules covering their use. That didn’t stop the agency from fining a 29-year-old Swiss man, Raphael “Trappy” Pinker, for flying a Styrofoam drone over the University of Virginia.
The FAA said that Trappy’s stunt, carried out in the course of filming an advertisement for the university’s medical school, amounted to a dangerous airplane flight. Recently, however, the National Transportation Safety Board declared that the agency couldn’t bar the commercial use of drones without conducting an official rule-making process.
Back in 2012, Congress told the FAA to put guidelines in place by 2013 and have a plan for detailed drone regulation by 2015. The agency will miss both of those deadlines. And its dithering has put it in an awkward legal position: The FAA may have ample potential legal authority over drones, particularly when it comes to safety, but its inability to hammer out the details is keeping it from taking a stand on their commercial use.
In the meantime, uncertainty about drones’ legality has driven entrepreneurs to sell their drones outside the United States, in places such as Brazil and Colombia.
Drones fire the imagination: They can be used to deliver beer to ice fishermen, take photos of spring training and monitor the progress of construction projects. Stunning YouTube nature videos captured by drones demonstrate that wilderness areas are prime hunting grounds for drone owners. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in turn, uses drones to hunt hunters, which has prompted a few states to pass laws that prohibit drones from interfering with legal hunting.