The Intersection: Apr 2016

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Three Key Elements of Drone Policy from SXSW Interactive

Author: Finch Fulton, Former VOXer

Something big happened at SXSW Interactive this year. I’m not talking about any flashy announcement or huge new inventions, but something bigger. It was subtle and persistent. A certainty of real change permeated some of the conference’s most interesting panels and discussions about the Next Big Thing in making our world a smaller place.

three key takeaways


A 2013 AUVSI Report noted that the drone industry will have created $13.6 billion in total economic impact and will have been responsible for 70,240 jobs by 2017. By 2020, the FAA estimates that 11 million commercial drones will have been sold. We are on the verge of a great leap in making our world more efficient; we just need to prove it to the government and the public. As Gur Kimchi of Amazon noted, it’s not about the drones; it’s about things coming to us. He stated “a ton of time is wasted by people just going to get things. People don’t realize that 80-90% of what Amazon already ships can be carried by drone.” When you combine this with other evolving technologies, such as connected cars and 3-D printing, there is no end to innovative ways to make our world smaller, safer and more convenient.


Drone integration is a signature initiative for President Obama before he leaves office, according to Lisa Ellman, who worked with the White House and Department of Justice in senior positions regarding domestic drone policy. The closer we get to the end of his presidency, the more rapid progress is being made.

Top accomplishments include:

  • The new system for the registration of drone flyers is easy and efficient. The FAA has registered over 400K drones since the system opened (1.5 drones per person who registered).
  • The micro unmanned aircraft systems (micro UAS) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) has been hard at work, and we should have a rule out of the FAA by this spring.
  • The No Drone Zone campaign has been successful in in protecting airspace around sensitive areas and events.
  • Drones are already being safely integrated into our airspace due to a partnership between the FAA, NASA and private sector companies, such as Intel, Airmap, PrecisionHawk and DJI.


According to Lisa Ellman, the biggest problem drones have right now is bad public perception and its offspring, bad legislation. This PR problem has led many politicians to try to capitalize on the public perception with short-sighted legislation. Today, there are over 35 states considering drone-related policies. In the last few years, 168 pieces of legislation were considered, and 26 bills were passed (by 20 states). The entire drone industry is at the mercy of politicians who seek to legislate against technology instead of legislating against actions, creating huge barriers for new technology aiming to make drones safer.


There appears to be consensus that there can be helpful agreements, although not necessarily regulations or legislation, in terms of standardization and rules of the road. There should be a range of rules that apply based on size, location and use: from tiny drones for recreation to heavy-duty drones for long-duration inspections. Proactive collaboration must continue between industry and government – including the FAA, NASA and local governments – to prove that this technology can be safely brought into U.S. airspace.

I enjoyed hearing these and other great insights from the SXSW speakers noted below. The policies surrounding the integration of drones into U.S. airspace are complex and fast moving. I will eagerly continue to follow the work of these experts and have included their panel links and Twitter handles below, so that you can follow, too.