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The Fight Over Drones, As Seen From A Drone

There are entrepreneurs who would love to fly drones all over the country. They dream of drones taking photos for real estate agents and helping farmers survey their fields. But there's a battle in the courts right now standing in their way. The battle is about whether it's legal for drones to take to the sky.

The question at the core of the battle: Who owns the air? We explored this question in a recent story and in the video above.

Right now the Federal Aviation Administration says it is illegal in the United States to operate a drone for commercial purposes, but the agency is considering exemptions for certain kinds of industries like film and agriculture.

Here are five things you should know about the current drone debate:

I'm a hobbyist. When am I breaking the law?

Breaking the law is probably the wrong way to put it. Back in 1981, the Federal Aviation Administration issued voluntary guidelines for hobbyists flying model airplanes (which, as it happens, are pretty similar to those things we now call drones). Basically, regulators asked hobbyists just not to fly near airports and to fly below 400 feet.

What else besides making videos and taking images can these drones be used for?

Skynet-like surveillance notwithstanding, you could sort of think of a drone as a cellphone or a little computer with wings. It could be equipped with any kind of sensors that monitor air quality or emit a Wi-Fi signal. Both Facebook and Google are investigating ways to use solar powered drones to supply cheap Wi-Fi connections all over the world.

There's a small startup in Silicon Valley called Matternet. It is exploring ways a network of drones could be used to help connect people in disparate parts of the world. It hopes drones could help alleviate poverty for close to 1 billion people who are cut off at least part of the year because the roads where they live are impassable. It has also experimented with using drones to deliver medical supplies to places affected by disasters.

What is going to happen when these drones are everywhere? If I see one out of my window, what can I do?

When it comes to drones and your privacy rights, the only laws on the books are being written by state legislatures, and so far the results have been all over the map. Though grabbing your shotgun and shooting a drone out of the air is still likely to get you in some trouble.

Do drones pollute the air? Are they dangerous?

Most drones run on batteries, so there's no direct air pollution. Interestingly, many environmental groups would like to use drones with sensors to monitor air pollution around facilities such as smokestacks. Some have argued that this could be a cheap way to enforce environmental laws that often go unenforced.

Can a drone be dangerous? Sure. A little drone could be as dangerous as any other 5-pound object dropped from 400 feet in the air. With more drones in the air, that's a greater possibility. And if a drone hits a plane, it could be very, very bad.

Is anyone talking about a legal age limit for drone owners? Or a drone license?

The FAA has been talking a lot about drone licenses. It has opened a series of test sites around the country. Those sites may ultimately end up certifying the airworthiness of drones and those who fly them.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.