Whose drone is it? St. Louis high-rise crash heralds age of private drones. (+video)

This week's crash of a drone onto the 30th-floor balcony of the tallest building in St. Louis makes clear that private drones are out there – and that their pilots are ignoring the FAA's behind-the-times rules.

By , Staff writer

St. Louis police are involved in a quirky whodunit involving a drone and a downtown skyscraper – a high-flying caper that marks how fast America is crashing into the age of private-sector drones and how safety regulators are struggling to keep up.

KMOV-TV in St. Louis reported that an office worker at the Metropolitan Square Building found a partly broken DJI Phantom II Quadcopter at about 4 p.m. Wednesday that had crashed onto a 30th-floor balcony of the 593-foot-tall building. The drone pilot, on the ground, apparently skedaddled.

The Federal Aviation Administration has estimated that the US could see 7,500 commercial drones operating within a few years. The agency, walloped by interest in the machines, has been ordered by Congress to rewrite safety rules to allow drones to be used for profit.

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The problem is that all kinds of individuals and companies are already flying camera-toting drones, often illegally. Even for amateur pilots, FAA rules ban flying in densely populated areas, like downtown St. Louis.

Chances are, many Americans have already seen drone-derived video footage on TV, presumably some of it taken illegally. There’s been an Academy Award for technical innovation in using a drone to shoot a movie. Companies chasing competitive advantage have been frantically lobbying Washington to open a road to legal flying, but the FAA has said it won’t finalize new regulations, which are likely to be onerous, until late next year. 

“The current regulatory void has left American entrepreneurs … sitting on the sidelines or operating in the absence of appropriate safety guidelines,” read an April 8 letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta from 33 industry groups, including the National Ski Areas Association.

But in the open market, the gates that keep the bulls from running are already open, and courts have sided with the entrepreneurs over the FAA. Last month, a federal administrative judge threw out a $10,000 fine against Raphael Pirker, a pioneering drone pilot who has, among many other things, dramatically swooped drones under and around the Golden Gate Bridge.

Today, the FAA allows amateurs to fly drones that weigh less than 55 pounds at heights below 400 feet – basically the existing rules for flying model R/C aircraft. Those rules discourage pilots from flying over densely populated areas.

The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Manufacturing industry has seen revenues soar, and it will continue to cruise through the next five years, reports IBISWorld, a market research firm. The kind of drone that crashed into the Met Building in St. Louis retails for $999.

“We’re watching a car accident in slow motion, because the technology is becoming so inexpensive and easy to use that it’s becoming just blindingly  obvious that there are useful things to be done here,” says Matt Waite, director of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln.

But if drone use is already becoming ubiquitous, the St. Louis drone crash underscores the FAA’s main stated concern: How exactly does the agency safely integrate small flying machines into US air space?

“There’s going to be significant regulations about qualifications, what kind of training the pilots are going to have, what kind of safety systems, whether they have to report data to the FAA, whether there may be background checks required to fly – we just don’t know yet,” says Mr. Waite.

The long wait before a drone regulatory regime is in place hints at the legal, technical, and societal complexity of new FAA rules that would goven the skies, and the right of Americans to record the world from above.

"We really want to get it right the first time," FAA spokesman Les Dorr told the Los Angeles Times this week.

That debate includes the darker prospects for a drone-filled world. Indeed, if commercial and recreational drone use is taking off despite the FAA’s protestations, it’s not without trepidation. The Humane Society of the United States last week called on all 50 US states to prohibit so-called “drone-assisted hunting,” which HSUS President Wayne Pacelle called “technology-gone-amok.”

But the beneficial uses are just as obvious, as long as the footage shot from drones is taken safely. A Texas search and rescue company with several major successes under its belt can’t legally use the drones it flies to find missing persons.

Journalism, in particular, is chasing the technology, with two Midwestern schools already running drone journalism programs. Perhaps because the programs basically advertise the illegal commercial use of drones, the FAA has issued them a cease and desist order until they get proper authorization. (The FAA, however, has certified drone use for some 600 public entities, including police and universities, to fly their drones legally.)

Indeed, the drone flotilla is coming, even as debates rage over the role of drones in a society that values privacy but also prizes technological advancements that capitalize on new vistas and frontiers – even if they’re just above your head, buzzing outside a downtown high-rise.

“It’s crazy that a drone actually hit this building and nobody knows where it came from,” St. Louis resident Joshua Foster told KSKD-TV. “That’s sickening.”

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