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I really loved this Politico piece by Marc Andreessen from 2014:
But policymakers shouldn’t be trying to copy Silicon Valley. Instead, they should be figuring out what domain is (or could be) specific to their region—and then removing the regulatory hurdles for that particular domain. Because we don’t want 50 Silicon Valleys; we want 50 different variations of Silicon Valley, all unique from each other and all focusing on different domains. Imagine a Bitcoin Valley, for instance, where some country fully legalizes cryptocurrencies for all financial functions. Or a Drone Valley, where a particular region removes all legal barriers to flying unmanned aerial vehicles locally. A Driverless Car Valley in a city that allows experimentation with different autonomous car designs, redesigned roadways and safety laws. A Stem Cell Valley. And so on.
I immediately thought of it when reading about “A Silicon Valley for Drones, in North Dakota” from New York Times reporter Quentin Hardy. A fortuitous combination of things is going on there, including: a) the state has a low population density (47th out of 50 states), so if a drone falls from the sky it will probably just hit dirt; b) Grand Forks Air Force Base “flies nothing but robot aircraft for the United States military and Customs and Border Protection”; c) the state spent $34 million on a civilian industrial park for drones near the air base; d) the University of North Dakota, which already trains commercial pilots and air traffic controllers, has a drone controller program; e) there’s a surprising amount of tech talent thanks to business investments from Amazon and Microsoft; f) it’s a rural state. and “rural states with farming, oil and rail lines see many practical reasons to put robots in the sky.”
One thing North Dakota probably isn’t doing is creating strict drone rules that clash with what the FAA recommends:
The F.A.A. said that as the top regulator of airspace, it should handle any bans on flights or permits for drone pilots. The agency released a fact sheet on Dec. 17 on federal laws that would pre-empt local rules. Because the F.A.A. was given that authority by Congress, the agency said, many local or state drone rules would not stand up to a legal challenge. “We believe the state and local government decision makers will benefit from this information, no matter what approach they take,” the F.A.A. said in a statement.
Any rollback by the F.A.A. of local drone regulations would benefit one group: tech companies. Companies such as Amazon and Google have hired dozens of lobbyists over the last year to visit aviation committees on Capitol Hill, explaining their plans to deliver packages and create entirely new segments of entertainment and sports. The companies want a light touch by regulators to help give their drone efforts the widest possible latitude. …
Many local legislators have since called for broader no-fly zones and strict privacy rules around drones. New rules also give local police officers permission to explore ways to take down errant drones without having to ask for permission from the federal authorities.
In Chicago, drones are now prohibited above schools, libraries, churches and private property without permission. In Miami, drones are banned within a half-mile radius of a “large public event,” and the police are able to use jamming technologies to take them down. In Los Angeles, drone users who operate near airports can face up to six months in jail.
And this related Financial Times story suggests a bit of civil disobedience by enthusiasts even to what the FAA is calling for:
The Consumer Technology Association expects 700,000 drones to be sold in the US this year, an increase of almost two-thirds from 2014. But this is the first holiday season in which Americans who received a drone under the Christmas tree are required to register it with the Federal Aviation Administration before flying it, or face civil and criminal penalties.
All drones weighing more than half a pound (227g) must have labels with their FAA registration number. That is much stricter than the UK, where only drones weighing more than 20kg need to be registered with the Civil Aviation Authority. To promote the rules, the FAA released a flurry of Christmas themed drone messages such as: “Rudolph can fly anywhere, but your drone can’t. Register before you fly.”
However, some hobbyist groups have resisted the call for registration. The Academy of Model Aeronautics, the largest model aeroplane group in the US, has instructed its 175,000 members to hold off on registering their model aeroplanes. In a statement, the group said it was concerned about “unnecessary and burdensome regulations”, and pointed out that a court case on the question of whether model aeroplanes should be regulated as “aircraft” by the FAA is still pending.