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Owen Ouyang, a Chinese exchange student, decided to have some fun one Saturday night early in December while relaxing at his home in Martinez, California. He strolled to the lawn in front of his home and launched a sleek new drone he purchased recently at $1000 from an online shop.

The 2.8 pound drone which was described as “easy to fly” proved to be the opposite of the description. As soon as it took off, it veered dangerously toward a power line and then ascended more than 700 feet onto the path of a California Highway Patrol helicopter. A head on collision was prevented at the last moment when the chopper’s crew made a sharp right hand turn.

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This dangerous incident indicated the need for introduction of safety regulations as more drones especially those used for recreation fly aimlessly into the national airspace. Also, the probability of a head-on catastrophic collision with a manned aircraft, possibly a commercial jetliner is on the increase. Senator Dianne Feinstein in a news release during the introduction of Consumer Drone Safety Act agreed that there is need for regulations on the use of drones. “If we don’t act now, it is only a matter of time before we have a tragedy on our hands”, she said.

Companies that produce drones for recreational use have been blamed for the shortcomings of their products. Drones such as Ouyang’s device can ascend impressive altitudes but they lack the necessary navigation and communication systems that will ensure safe flying. Paul Hudson, the President of the airline passenger advocacy group known as FlyersRights.org, revealed that the drone industry lobbyists have succeeded in convincing the Federal Aviation Administration to grant “a de factor waiver” of basic aircraft regulations for drone producers and sellers.

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Fears Overblown

Drone producers revealed that new safety features have been included in their products as fear of further mishaps have been exaggerated. “The record we have to date should speak for itself”, affirmed Brenda Schulman, Vice President of DJI, a Chinese drone company that dominated the market for recreational drones. “The recreational drone world has tens of millions of operational hours, I would estimate and not a simple fatality. The notion that something is going to happen one day is true of everything but that could be said about lawnmowers”, Schulman said while referring to the Federal figures showing the number of people killed yearly by lawnmower accidents.

Feinstein and Senator Schumber, D-New York, still maintained that FAA should be given the authority to regulate the use of recreational drones. The aviation agency should also mandate the manufacturers to include safety measures such as limitations on the height the drone will fly.

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Close Encounter With Drones

The Bard College’s Center for the study of drones in its report released in December, identified 327 “close encounters” between drones and manned aircraft over a 21 months period. The report also recorded accidents involving drones in which people were injured. However, critics blamed the marketers for emphasizing on the ease of operating drones rather than informing users on the risks involved in flying drones.

Producers of recreational drones in Washington have been accused of using political to shield themselves from regulations. Moreover, FAA has issued a proposal to ease the standards for commercial drones used in aerial photography, power line surveillance and crop monitoring.

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