STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The federal government is determined to change its rules to catch up to a changing world. In particular, the government wants to catch up with drones. The number of drones in American skies is growing so rapidly the Department of Transportation wants new rules to register them within weeks. Gregory McNeal is part of the adviser group that's supposed to do this. He's on the faculty at Pepperdine School of Law and also co-founded a software company for drone users. He's in our studios. Good morning.
GREGORY MCNEAL: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Why the urgency?
MCNEAL: You know, the secretary says this is an emergency because millions of drones will be used on Christmas morning. And so there's...
INSKEEP: Millions of drones?
MCNEAL: Millions - well, that's the number that's floating around. The Consumer Electronics Association has a much lower number. And the industry advocates say what kind of drones are we talking about? Are we talking about toys? I mean, that seems like a really high number. So there's a lot of skepticism there.
INSKEEP: OK, so are there lots of drones that the public needs to worry about here in terms of privacy, in terms of safety, crashing into other airplanes, any sense of that?
MCNEAL: My sense is that this is a reaction to more of a perceived problem than an actual problem right now. And that's because the FAA released a report that speaks about near misses. But actually, when you dig into the numbers, they were just reported near-misses. So while the reports are up, the actual encounters that come near aircraft when you dig into the numbers are pretty low. But it seems like there might be other things that are urging the agency to take action, like the fact that there are impending regulations coming out in June that will require the aircraft to be registered, so they have to get a system in place.
INSKEEP: OK. So you're skeptical that there's all that much urgency, but the process is in place. There's a desperate rush to get these in place before Christmas. So what will the rules that you're supposed to help draft do?
MCNEAL: Right now nobody on the committee knows the full scope of our mandate. And I think that the government has done the right thing here by bringing in a lot of different people to try and figure out what will be a non-onerous system if a system is indeed required, and it sounds like it is.
INSKEEP: A system to register who owns...
MCNEAL: To register who owns drones, so a national drone registry.
MCNEAL: And we have 30 days to figure something out.
INSKEEP: What is the point of knowing exactly who owns the drone?
MCNEAL: There are few used cases. For example, every time there's a high-profile incident, it takes the FAA a long time to figure out who the owner of the drone was.
MCNEAL: They recover the drone, but they don't recover the owner because it's remotely operated. And that seems to be the cases that the secretary was speaking about.
INSKEEP: So this is - and you're talking about the secretary of transportation here, of course. So this almost like registering handguns then. If there's an incident, you want to be able to investigate it later.
MCNEAL: Yeah, except these things are relatively small and for the most part pretty harmless. The ones we're talking about you can buy at Best Buy. And the type of harm that you would expect to come from them is pretty low. So to put them in the same category I think is a bit tough.
INSKEEP: We've just got a few seconds here. But is there a real chance that in the next year, in the next five years, we're going to have that moment when a drone strikes an airplane?
MCNEAL: I - I don't know how to predict that. I think it's possible, but most of these things operate at really low altitudes. And so it's not clear to me that the registry is going to fix a lot of the problems that we're trying to do. But it seems like a necessary step towards government regulation.
INSKEEP: Well, good luck in working fast.
MCNEAL: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's Gregory McNeal. He's on an advisory group drafting rules for registering unmanned aircraft or drones.
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