Editorial: Responsible use of technology drives hoverboard, drone rules

Last modified: Sunday, January 17, 2016

This month’s announcements regulating drones and hoverboards are a reminder that with developing technology comes the responsibility of using it safely. And while the rules generally make common sense, they also point to the challenge, in a highly technological world, of protecting personal property rights and freedoms.

The Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee invited reporters to its control tower Jan. 7 to highlight new Federal Aviation Administration regulations for “unmanned aircraft systems” which require drones to be registered online and provide guidelines for owners about operating them safely.

Those include flying drones below 400 feet, keeping them in sight, avoiding interference with manned aircraft and not operating them near people and stadiums or within five miles of an airport without first notifying officials. In the case of Westover, that means contacting airfield operations by calling (413) 557-2951. “The tower watch supervisor will work with individuals to make sure they are flying in an air traffic-friendly area,” according to a statement from Westover.

The FAA regards remote-controlled aircraft weighing from about half a pound to 55 pounds used for recreational purposes as aircraft, not toys, making them subject to aviation laws and guidelines. As drones grow in popularity — an estimated 700,000 were sold nationwide during the last holiday season — so has the number of near-accidents with manned aircraft. According to the FAA, military and civilian pilots reported nearly 700 “close call with drone” incidents in 2015, nearly triple the number recorded in 2014.

Drones can do plenty of damage if they get sucked into the engine of a commercial or military airplane.

The new regulations require anyone who bought a drone Dec. 21, 2015, or later to register it online at www.faa.gov/uas/registration/ before its first flight. People who flew their drones before Dec. 21 have until Feb. 19 to register. Anyone who registers before midnight Wednesday will have a $5 fee refunded. Civil and criminal penalties can apply.

The regulations apply to model aircraft being flown by hobbyists. Different rules cover government and civil operation of drones, including those used by businesses.

While it makes sense to know who is flying these unmanned aircraft, and to educate them about their safe use, one local drone enthusiast warns against over-regulation by the FAA. Paul Voss, an associate professor of engineering at Smith College, says that while the FAA traditionally has had jurisdiction of airspace above 500 feet, its new rules covering drones flying at lower altitudes raise questions about “who owns the sky.” Taken to an extreme, Voss warns that if the FAA expands its regulation of space “above the grass ... maybe you need a license to fly a kite.” We hope that is never the case and that the government not go beyond its current registration system and safety guidelines.

Another popular gadget during the past holiday season is the motorized, two-wheeled, self-balancing device known as a hoverboard. However, this latest transportation craze is linked to fires and explosions related to their lithium-ion batteries, resulting in a ban by the three largest U.S. airlines as well as an increasing number of colleges across the country.

Those include the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Amherst College which announced bans this month. Amherst cited “the risk of fire, the hazards of charging the units and the potential for serious injuries or property damage.”

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced this month that it was investigating 28 fires in 19 states linked to hoverboards. And its chairman, Elliot F. Kaye, warned that people are hurting themselves in falls.

While we defend the right of people who want to ride hoverboards, that is advice to be heeded, and the campus bans make sense until stricter safety standards are put in place reducing the risk of fires and explosions.


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