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OPINION: Potential of drones captivating, but must have rules

We’re captivated by the futuristic potential of unmanned aircraft. Whether it’s bird-sized machines that capture heretofore unseen views of scenery and wildlife, or airplane-sized vehicles that do jobs manned crafts did in the past, we appreciate the impact drones will soon have on everyday life.

There are large local implications, too. This region is fast becoming a hub for unmanned aircraft systems, and the economic boon the industry will provide to this region will be recognizable.

But we once again hear of the potential troubles that come with unmanned craft, and it makes us more resolute in our belief that firm regulations must quickly be put in place before the skies truly will be safe.

For example: A private drone that was filming a wildfire in California recently disrupted firefighting efforts. Fire officials spotted the craft — a toy, really — hovering over the fire and immediately recognized it could cause a mid-air collision with manned firefighting aircraft.

This is serious, yet unfortunately we suspect it’s not unique in times of disaster. We have seen other post-disaster video from remotely piloted aircraft, flown by hobbyists who are far more curious than sinister. One man in New York, for instance, was criticized earlier this year when he flew a small drone through an unfolding fire disaster as rescue efforts were still being conducted.

So many issues now exist that were almost unthinkable just a few years ago, and the one real problem is that most small drone operators really mean no harm. Many are employing this new technology in interesting and helpful uses, which makes it difficult to condemn.

Those in agriculture industries can use drones to check crops. Conservation officers can check for wildlife violations. Police can monitor traffic. These are legitimate uses — arguably, of course.

Commercial use of unmanned craft is outlawed by the Federal Aviation Administration, but too many other potential problems exist.

What about hunters who use the devices to find game? Or the strange people who fly drones over public beaches to take pictures of sunbathers (which actually has happened)?

How can the paparazzi be trusted with picture-taking drones?

We have used this space to push the FAA to hurry and determine a set of rules and regulations as a way to get in front of this burgeoning industry. Back in April, we noted that federal agencies can move fast when they want to, and this is a time when the FAA should go full-speed ahead.

Pour more resources into the process, we suggested. We are more convinced today, because we sense trouble looming on the horizon.

We’re not against drones or their use. In fact, we share the excitement of watching the birth of what’s sure to be a mammoth new industry. But that’s all the more reason to raise this offspring within a firm set of rules — whatever they may be — to ensure the safety and privacy standards we deserve.