CNBC Explains

Are there enough drone laws for the coming drone wars?

Consumer drones are taking off—literally.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, drone flights within the United States could reach 1 million a day by 2035.

GoPro announced that it's setting the camera free from the selfie stick and will soon release consumer drone products. Silicon Valley venture capital firm Accel Partners is teaming up with one of its portfolio investments, Chinese drone giant DJI (recently valued at $10 billion), on SkyFund. It's the first-ever VC fund for the drone sector, and it specifically targets expansion of the consumer drone market.

Amazon was awarded a patent in early May for a type of drone that would pick up and deliver packages to delivery points as specified by the consumer. A proposed rule-making from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) weighs the issue of drones weighing fewer than 55 pounds and conducting non-recreational flights—it may be two or three years before this rule is finalized.

The growth of the commercial and consumer drone industry raises a straightforward question: Are there enough drone laws to regulate the coming drone wars?

DartDrones co-founder Abby Speicher (left) trains people to operate drones. Here she instructs how to fly a DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus near Babson College on May 26, 2015.
Pat Greenhouse | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

The FAA already has outlined a series of regulations that determine how different categories of drones—officially known as unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) can fly in the already cluttered U.S. airspace.

The FAA categorizes drone flights into three categories: Public Operations (government usage), Civil Operations (non-governmental usage) and Model Aircraft Operations (for recreational purposes). A flight would be categorized into one of these "operations" on a flight-by-flight basis as determined by U.S. law.

Categorizing flights involves determining who owns the aircraft, who's flying it, what the purpose of the flight is and who's on board the flight.

The first drone flights

To be considered a public operation, a drone would have to be owned, flown by and intended for the purposes of a public agency or organization. Still, the agency must receive a certificate from the FAA granting them the ability to "operate a particular aircraft, for a particular purpose, in a particular area." The certificate would typically grant license for flight to a given unmanned aircraft for up to two years.

Civil operations include any drone flights that don't meet the standards to be considered a public operation. Within this category, the FAA offers the ability for any non-governmental organizations to gain access to the air as long as their drones are used to perform commercial operations in "low-risk, controlled environments."

In order to gain this type of airspace access, an organization must file a petition for exemption from U.S. law that requires an aircraft and its pilot to be certified.

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The FAA has partnered with drone companies like PrecisionHawk to test commercial drone usage within designated test airspaces. PrecisionHawk has been charged with expanding its client base and keeping in constant communication with the FAA to prove it is a scalable business model.

A recently announced example is the FAA's Pathfinder program, which includes PrecisionHawk, CNN and Berkshire Hathaway's Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. CNN will investigate how drones can be used for newsgathering in urban areas, PrecisionHawk will conduct crop monitoring, and BNSF will inspect track infrastructure.

An exemption for crop-dusting drones was also recently granted by the FAA.

Drone-operating software maker Airware recently launched its Commercial Drone Fund to invest up to $1 million in early stage drone ecosystem start-ups. San Francisco-based Airware's first two investments were a drone data-processing company based in France and a U.K.-based drone sensor company focused on the oil and gas sector.

High-tech hobbyists

A key differentiation made by the FAA is between civil and recreational operation of drones.

The FAA defines a model aircraft operation as any drone flight that is executed for recreational or hobby purposes. However, if the drone is taking photographs or videos for purposes other than personal usage, the drone is considered a civil operation.

Drones operated by news organizations and journalists, for example, would be considered a civil operation and would therefore require a certificate and petition for exemption.

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The FAA has released a series of guidelines for recreational operations of drones. They urge recreational operators of unmanned drones to:

  • Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles.
  • Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times.
  • Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.
  • Not fly within 5 miles of an airport unless the airport and control tower are contacted before flying.
  • Not fly near people or stadiums.
  • Not fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 pounds.
  • Not be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft—you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.

The drone wars begin

Last year, in the farming town of Deer Trail, Colorado, Phillip Steel proposed a town ordinance that would allow its 600 residents to purchase $25 permits to "hunt" drones flying in their airspace. Much like he hoped to do with the drones, Steel's ordinance was shot down by 73 percent of voters. The FAA released a statement following this proposal, saying, "Shooting at an unmanned aircraft could result in criminal or civil liability, just as would firing at a manned airplane."

Local governments are beginning to seek greater control over the drone flights. In San Francisco, drone operators have increasingly begun to fly their aircraft around the Golden Gate Bridge to gather footage and photos. Several of the drones have crashed into the structure's roadway. While commercial drones are strictly regulated, recreational usage of drones continues to be fairly free, and some drones have been spotted gathering photos and footage behind preexisting barriers that prohibited photography in certain areas.

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This issue has evolved into one of national security and privacy as concerns have mounted over the uninhibited access that is seemingly granted to recreational drone photographers and videographers.

Drones have flown over the Grand Canyon, disturbed sheep in Zion National Park and even landed in a geyser in Yellowstone. After several incidents, the National Park Service officially published a no-drone flight policy for the park system last year. This ban could be a sign that further regulations may come that restrict drones, even recreational ones, from being able to fly and capture photos or video in certain locations. It could be expected for similar regulations to emerge for the airspace above private property and other critical infrastructures around the U.S.

There are some sensitive places over which you won't likely ever be allowed to fly your drone: The FAA is trying to declare Washington, D.C. a "No Drone Zone" following a series of drone-related scares around the White House.

(Disclosure: CNBC parent company NBCUniversal is also part of a coalition of 10 news organizations testing drones for newsgathering purposes, in a partnership with Virginia Tech University.)

By Andrew Wood, special to