Drone Regulators Struggle to Keep Up With the Rapidly Growing Technology

Officials have been slow to create rules that ensure safety—as well as innovation

Original Article Published on WSJ.com

Drone technology is developing so quickly—and morphing into commercial uses never before contemplated—that aviation regulators are having trouble keeping pace.

Air-safety authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have acknowledged that traditional rule making is too slow and rigid to cope with the rapidly expanding applications of the flying machines, from bridge inspections to land surveys to news photography. And the pressure to spell out exactly what’s allowed and what isn’t is growing as the industry booms. Millions of hobbyists already operate drones, and over the next few years businesses are projected to begin flying millions more in the U.S. alone.

Now regulators are scrambling to draft new, more-nimble rules and procedures. And they’re seeking lots of input to make sure industry desires are reflected and potentially useful technologies aren’t trampled.

Noting that new drone models can be designed and produced in a matter of months—versus many years for airliners—Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huertaemphasizes the importance of adjusting and speeding up regulatory efforts. For an industry that “moves at the speed of imagination,” he said recently at a conference in Washington, “we need to do this in a way that doesn’t stifle the kind of innovation we are seeing.”

The goal, Mr. Huerta and other regulators stress, is opening the door to unpredictable changes while maintaining today’s record airline-safety levels. Even among no-nonsense aviation experts hardly known for hyperbole, today’s drone revolution often is compared with the initial golden age of innovation spawned by the historic exploits of the Wright Brothers more than a century ago.