Editor’s Note: Dr. Ford Vox is a physician specializing in rehabilitation medicine and a journalist. He is a medical analyst for NPR station WABE 90.1 in Atlanta. He writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @FordVox. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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With drones exploding in popularity and plummeting in price, we'll see more problems

Ford Vox: We need to take legislative action now to prevent serious disasters caused by drones

CNN  — 

One day, not long ago, as I began to relax on a sparsely populated beach in California, I was startled when a drone came close to me. I’m not alone in sighting recreational drones. They are beginning to dot the skies, and along the way, grounding firefighting aircraft and endangering passenger jetliners.

While 20th century science fiction writers probably expected this scenario by 2015, the latest dumb drone antics represent a failure of imagination by our nation’s policymakers. We’re on track to endure every outrageous act the most irresponsible people among us can produce until a drone disaster of sufficient horror demands legislative action. By that time, like the gun problem, we may be too late.

Let’s survey what’s happening around the world.

In Tokyo, a man flew a drone carrying a bottle containing radioactive cesium onto the roof of the Prime Minister’s office in April to protest the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

In the U.S. this year, two drones flew illegally near the White House, with one landing on the lawn. Fortunately, both were radiation-free. Given that a postman flying a Mad Max-style gyrocopter can land where he likes in sleepy D.C., perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that the Capitol’s skies are so inviting to drones.

In Geraldton, Australia, a drone filming a triathlon fell from close range, hitting one of the athletes, knocking her to the ground and giving her a head injury.

In Tijuana, Mexico, pop singer Enrique Iglesias learned during a May concert that reaching out and grabbing a drone can cause injury. The drone sliced through several of his fingers, fracturing bone and damaging nerves.

While these accidents and injuries don’t seem like an onslaught, they’re just the start. With drones exploding in popularity and plummeting in price, we’ll see more problems.

For example, a design flaw in current drone technology means that from time to time, a drone just flies off and is out of the pilot’s control. It can continue flying until it runs out of power and falls with potentially deadly impact. In Australia, according to a drone industry insider, 50 recreational users have told him they experienced “flyaways” in the past year. The pilot behind the White House lawn drone blamed just such a flyaway.

People have also taken to shooting drones in a spirited defense of their backyard peace and personal privacy. While some are cheering them on, the courts aren’t joining in. Of course, firing bullets at a moving object in the sky is a serious safety threat. If you absolutely must shoot down a drone, might I suggest a net gun?

What’s really scary are the nightmare scenarios. Without more rigorous regulatory action, we’ll probably see at some point a drone collide with a commercial jetliner, which could potentially kill everyone on board.

Currently, the recreational drone industry is growing fast. Meanwhile, the lax regulation we have consists largely of an educational campaign that warns drone pilots of the few rules that exist, such as no flights more than 400 feet in the air, or no flights within 5 miles of an airport.

In August, four commercial flights spotted a drone as they approached Newark Liberty International Airport. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, pilot reports of drone sightings so far in 2015 are more than double the total number of 238 sightings from 2014. By the end of the year, Americans will own approximately 700,000 recreational drones. With numbers like that, we only need a tiny percentage of idiots to wreak havoc.

Such idiocy was on full display during a recent wildfire in California, where hobby drones buzzing in critical airspace held up firefighters from dispatching helicopters with water buckets for up to 20 minutes.

So far, the legislative response to such incidents doesn’t match the task at hand. Proposed California legislation would allow firefighters immunity for taking down drones, and would impose fines and jail time if a drone interrupts a firefighter’s work.

In Georgia, the governor recently decided on instituting a blanket 5-mile drone ban around the state Capitol in downtown Atlanta to protect historic buildings.

Such patchwork rules are not enough. These high-tech toys require high-tech solutions that recognize that we don’t have as much control over the irresponsible users (who range from clueless kids to genuinely clueless adults) as we do over the manufacturers and the market.

The FAA’s “Know before you fly” campaign is about as successful as if we asked American drivers to wear seat belts without requiring that automakers install them. So what should we do? Here are six measures that lawmakers should consider implementing now:

Drones need vehicle identification numbers

All motor vehicles have unique VINs that allow law enforcement to track down their owners. All aircraft are required to have IDs as well. The safety risks associated with drones also merit VINs.

Require a license for recreational use

Hobbyists who hunt and fish must get a license for their activities. Owners who want to fly drones should as well.

Create a public flight database

Build a publicly accessible, national flight database that maintains a log of all flying drones, detailing their flight paths. This will prove incredibly useful to police and emergency responders investigating rogue drone incidents, and it offers a powerful disincentive for illegal activity.

Define personal airspace

We should all have a right to privacy from a drone’s spying camera on our private property or near our residence. No one should have to feel that they need to watch out for a drone hovering outside a window. We must define the proximity within which a drone infringes on our personal space in public and in private. And we must define when identifiable images taken of people via drone without their knowledge constitutes a crime.

Mandate drone accident insurance

Drone pilots, whether commercial or recreational, should have drone insurance. A market is already developing, but we should mandate participation. Requiring insurance will both lower the price and serve as a prod toward responsible behavior. Due to flaws inherent in the technology (e.g., flyaways), every drone pilot is at risk of harming a person.

Install geo-fencing technology

Manufacturers must sell drones installed with regularly updated “geo-fencing.” A geo-fence demarcates a no-go zone defined by GPS that prevents the drone from flying inside those coordinates. Such virtual fences allow governments and law enforcement to block drones from sensitive areas, such as Washington, D.C., or in emergency scenarios (like wildfires) where unauthorized drones could interfere. Individual citizens should be able to register their property as a no-fly zone, and drone owners who violate such zones should face penalties.

Drones will provide us with many benefits. They’ll survey accident scenes, help police manage dangerous situations, inspect our nation’s crumbling infrastructure and deliver packages. They’re fun to fly, and the world can always use more fun.

But like so many technologies, one person’s enjoyment can become another’s tragedy. Lawmakers would do well to implement these six measures before a predictable disaster has everyone pointing fingers.

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