What's the difference between a drone and a toy? The pilot

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Marco Werman: Those pictures and video were not shot from a drone, but one thing you’ll notice in the video is that the drone with the flag that was flown over the field, it looks more like a toy. It’s called a multirotor copter, green and red lights light up its four propellers. It seems like a great stocking stuffer for Christmas, but still the headlines call it a drone. So, that got me thinking. What is a drone and what is not a drone? Shawn Musgrave is here to help us out with that. He’s the projects editor at Muckrock, a news organization that helps people file freedom of information act requests.


Shawn Musgrave: In the United States, the determining factor for whether you need authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate a drone, the key factor is what you are using it for. So, someone who is using one of these units recreationally as a hobby does not need any sort of special waiver. Whereas government agencies that’s using the exact same Brookstone or Verizon store-purchased unit does need a waiver to use this for any sort of government activity. In the past couple of years, a few police departments were under the impression that if their unit was below or a certain size or if they were not going to fly above a certain altitude, that they did not need a waiver. But that is absolutely not the case and the FAA has been trying to make that very clear across the past couple of years, but we’ve still found some police departments and other government agencies that are unclear on that point.


Werman: The FAA, I gather, recently sent your organization, Muckrock, a full list of agencies in the US that have applied for drone waivers. Apparently it took you a year of work to get ahold of this list -- who’s on it?


Musgrave: There’s a wide variety of different government agencies on it, and it did take a considerable amount of cajoling on the FAA’s part, which has been their MO for the past few years. But the bulk of them are made up of universities, which are using them for different sorts of research, depending on what kind of sensor they’re putting on it, and then law enforcement is also a substantial chunk of the agencies on the list.


Werman: Why do you think the FAA was so cagey about this?


Musgrave: It’s really not clear to me. The FAA is certainly under scrutiny from a number of different stakeholders. There are a couple of court cases going on right now from individuals that are trying to use drones for commercial applications, particularly photography. Their strategy so far has seemingly been to put a clamp on the information. Certainly, they’re not in any hurry to release any more information than is necessary.


Werman: The FAA’s job is to monitor and control airspace. How are they dealing with drones in close calls? Because Youtube is filled with close calls and some actual accidents.


Musgrave: That is one of the disruptive potentials of drone technologies. By scaling down significantly, particularly the smaller drones, really make it much more difficult to regular airspace in this regard. For the last several decades, the sheer size of an airplane, even the smallest airplane, will show up on radar, so it’s pretty easy to detect and relatively easy to head off and of the close calls that you mentioned. But a small vehicle is not necessarily going to be seen by air traffic control or show up on radar, so it’s much more difficult to track, and that’s one of the paradigm shifts that the FAA is trying to tackle, and one of the reasons, certainly, why they’re trying to limit the number of commercial and government drones that are flying around until they’re able to figure out what the most effective way of regulating this sphere is.


Werman: I’ll bet you’re just waiting for the day when we see a Yankee’s fan fly a drone into Fenway Park just to stick it to Red Sox fans.


Musgrave: We’ll see. If there’s one rivalry where it’s most likely, where we ought to be on highest alert, it’s probably Red Sox-Yankees.


Werman: Shawn Musgrave, project editor at Muckrock, thank you.


Musgrave: Thank you very much for having me Marco.