WASHINGTON – If drones are flying dangerously or illegally, their operators should be punished the same as anyone driving or flying recklessly, the head of an industry group told an aviation club Friday.
But drone operators also need rules to fly under, according to Michael Toscano, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, and he urged the Federal Aviation Administration to develop rules faster to open the skies to commercial drones after years of waiting.
"If you're acting in a careless or reckless manner, you are going to be held accountable," Toscano told the Aero Club of Washington.
His comments came as the FAA investigates a report that a drone nearly hit an airliner above Tallahassee in March, although the operator wasn't identified. Toscano said the operation sounded illegal because the drone was reported at 2,300 feet in the air within 5 miles of an airport.
"This individual, no matter what he is doing, is breaking the law, and it's irresponsible," Toscano said. "That's why these people need to be held accountable if you misuse this technology."
Police, firefighters and academics are allowed to use drones with special FAA permits. Enforcing restrictions against commercial uses is contentious, as a $10,000 FAA fine against one drone operator has an appeal pending before the National Transportation Safety Board.
Because of broad interest in flying drones, Toscano urged the FAA to allow low-risk uses as it develops rules for drones to signal their location, avoid collisions and land safely if they lose connection with their remote pilot.
"We understand there are concerns and safety aspects, but we need to field this capability," Toscano said. "That's the only way you're going to get the data that's necessary to fully understand what is acceptable and what is not."
Jim Williams, FAA's drone manager who sat next to Toscano at the club's lunch, told a drone conference earlier this month that the agency would expedite commercial operations for filmmaking, agriculture and inspection of power lines and flare stacks.
Toscano argued that drones could revolutionize aviation as much as the first commercial flight a century ago. Immediate uses include monitoring wildfires and searching for missing persons, which can be dangerous jobs for planes or helicopters with people aboard.
"I call the uses the four D's: the dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull jobs that human beings face every day," Toscano said.
The industry is projected to grow to 7,500 drones within five years after FAA settles on regulations. Toscano's group estimates the industry will create 100,000 jobs and generate $82 billion in economic activity a decade after drones start sharing the sky.
Toscano suggested FAA cover five elements in developing its regulations: trained operators, airworthy aircraft, flying safely, data collection to study how drones work and accountability such as a computer chip aboard each drone to identify its operator.
"There has to be accountability for the misuse of that technology or inappropriate actions that take place," Toscano said.