What began as a think tank stunt with a do-it-yourself drone turned into a lesson for researchers on the inadequacy of Federal Aviation Administration unmanned aircraft zoning.
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, challenged friends to a duel in the sky last weekend with smartphone-controlled toy helicopters purchased from Brookstone. Congress this year mandated that FAA open the U.S. airspace to privately owned drones in 2015. On Sunday, two children younger than 15 helped Wittes win the Drone Smackdown by disabling their opponents’ control panel, or iPhone in this case.
But earlier in the month FAA almost spoiled the fun by prohibiting their unmanned aircraft systems from flying in Washington. The agency had heard about the contest through one of Wittes’ blog posts.
This was an issue of a regulatory agency being afraid to set a legal precedent, Wittes later wrote: “The FAA’s concern with respect to model aircraft, [an agency aviation inspector] said, is protecting people and property on the ground and protecting other aviation, and it would be hard to distinguish the Smackdown in principle from more reckless uses of larger [unmanned aircraft systems] that might pose a real problem in this regard. If the agency did not respond to my post, he pointed out, what would happen the next time someone wanted to fly a drone in the D.C. flight restricted zone?”