Our Voice: Comprehensive policies needed for drone operators

Two separate drone crashes at major sporting events last week have heightened the concern that, in the wrong hands, these popular flying machines can cause a lot of damage and serious injury.

While no one was harmed at the U.S. Open in New York or the University of Kentucky football game, it was luck that the drones went down in areas away from the crowd.

But until there are some better regulations on the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — as enthusiasts prefer to call them — these kinds of incidents are more likely to occur.

The Federal Aviation Administration is in the process this year of developing UAS operating standards and have established test sites around the country so it can better determine how to manage this relatively new technology.

Until then, however, pleading with people to use their heads when operating the gadgets appears at the moment to be the best way to ensure public safety.

Closer to home, this past summer the U.S. Forest Service and wildfire managers in Oregon and Washington had to remind people not to fly drones over wildfires. That’s something that should be obvious, but drones disrupted firefighters in California twice while they were battling a blaze at the San Bernadino National Forest.

So, a plea had to be made to the public to please not be stupid.

A UAS flying near a wildfire might collide with firefighting aircraft and a mid-air collision could seriously injure or even kill people on the ground. If firefighters see a drone, they have to stop their aerial attack on the flames.

State officials around the country have been grappling with a way to reign in misuse of drones and address privacy concerns, while also recognizing their value.

For instance, a UAS can help search and rescue operations, law enforcement, wildlife tracking and a farmer with his crops. But used the wrong way they can invade people’s privacy and wreak havoc at public events or emergency operations.

Lawmakers in Washington state tried in 2014 to legislate UAS operations, but the proposal was vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee. He made the right call, as the law was poorly written and would have led to a hodgepodge of rules that, in some cases, seemed to contradict each other.

This past session, several separate bills addressing different aspects of UAS operations made progress, but failed to pass. Perhaps something can be done next year.

In the meantime, the FAA in February set up guidelines that can be found on its website.

Unfortunately, operators without common sense likely won’t adhere to them, and that’s why we need a comprehensive policy with some teeth in it.