It makes no sense to apply the same set of rules to 55-pound and one-pound aircraft under the same rules, said Pepperdine's McNeal. For example: It would be "onerous" to put small drones used for surveying and photography under the same certification and flight path standards as larger drones made for tasks such as hauling goods or defense, he said.
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Deploying drones more widely also increases the chances of disrupting aircraft flight, and the FAA has acknowledged that close calls are rising. The prospect of more drones in the sky has also fueled concerns about consumer privacy and government surveillance, an area in which the FAA does not hold jurisdiction.
"There's a big battle we're seeing between the forces of commerce and innovation and the forces of security and safety," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union's speech, privacy and technology project.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Department of Commerce, is working with the FAA to field concerns about privacy and transparency. The office has taken public comment and will hold stakeholder meetings in the coming months to devise a recommended set of best practices to protect civil liberties.
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And since drones are controlled by signals sent through the air-wave spectrum, the Federal Communications Commission also has some jurisdiction over their use. If the FAA lets drones fly out of an operator's sight for uses such as package delivery, the FCC may need to take a larger role in sorting frequencies and limiting potential attempts to disrupt signals, Swindell said.
He added that issues with drones carrying mobile Internet hot spots could draw in the FCC, which did not respond to a request to comment. It adds up to a confusing landscape at a time when many companies look to expedite drone use.
In the absence of broad federal regulations, many state and local governments have drafted drone rules that have been "all over the board," Swindell said. He and Arizona State colleagues are now working with local lawmakers on regulations that aim to balance consumer considerations, like flight over private property, with drone use that serves the public interest.
"We're trying to find that balance of these two main competing interests that a lot of local governments simply are not doing," he said.