In March 2012, volunteers spent four days looking for a two-year-old boy who wandered away from his home outside Houston, Texas. They found him only after volunteers reviewing images captured by a drone-mounted aerial camera saw a flash of red in a pond that had already been searched. It turned out to be a shirt worn by the child, who had drowned.
That was not the first time members of Texas EquuSearch had used these small model planes to help locate a missing person. But if the Federal Aviation Administration has its way, it won't happen again.
In February, the group got a letter from the FAA demanding that it stop using unmanned aircraft in search-and-rescue efforts, which it says violates its ban on the commercial use of drones. It's a perfect example of government regulators using imaginary problems to justify sweeping restrictions.
The agency fears that without its benevolent intervention, small drones will endanger commercial airliners, private jets and people on the ground. It is ignoring its own history, which indicates that tiny flying machines are no particular cause for worry.
Remote-controlled model planes have been around longer than the FAA, which was created in 1958. The International Miniature Aircraft Association has 155,000 members around the world.
Over the years, a handful of people have been killed in accidents involving these devices. But the FAA has never seen the need to regulate them. Its only gesture in that direction is a 1981 advisory encouraging "voluntary" observance of guidelines keeping the planes away from populated areas and airports, below 400 feet and clear of manned aircraft.
But with the advent of more advanced versions, the agency decided it could forbear no longer. In 2007, it decreed that any use of drones for commercial purposes is forbidden. Last year, it imposed a $10,000 fine on Raphael Pirker, who used a five-pound radio-controlled plane to take footage of the University of Virginia for an advertising firm. His supposed sin was defying its regulation against "reckless operation" of an aircraft.
If anything was reckless, it was the FAA's use of its power to enforce fictitious obligations in a manner that served no evident need. Pirker challenged the penalty, and last month, an administrative law judge told the agency to go fly a kite.
Pirker couldn't violate the rule against reckless operation of an airplane, said Judge Patrick Geraghty, because that rule doesn't apply to his machine. The agency, he noted, has always exempted model planes from regulation, and the "unmanned aerial system" used by Pirker was indistinguishable from those.
In asserting control over any "device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air," the FAA grossly overreached.
By its logic, the judge marveled, launching "a paper aircraft or a toy balsa-wood glider ... could subject the 'operator' to the regulatory provisions."
The only applicable FAA policy on drones and model aircraft is purely advisory, he said, and you can't be fined $10,000 for choosing not to follow its friendly suggestions.
The regulators' intrusion into search-and-rescue efforts is even harder to justify. In the first place, the 2007 decree against commercial use of drones has no relevance to a humanitarian organization that doesn't charge or accept payment for its work. Nor has anyone alleged that Texas EquuSearch flew its devices in such a way as to put bystanders in peril.
The FAA policy is tolerance for frivolous entertainment but not for life-and-death missions. You can play with a model airplane all you want, and the bureaucrats will leave you alone. But dare to look for a missing toddler, and there will be hell to pay.
A spokesman for the agency says that though it sometimes grants emergency authorization for search operations, nobody has requested one for Texas EquuSearch. That option, however, is available only to government agencies, and the FAA acknowledges it can take "a day or so."
Why should the group have to get approval to do something that offers considerable promise and does no visible harm? Why should a local police department dealing with an emergency have to waste time pleading for federal permission to do its job immediately with the best tools at hand?
In this instance, the FAA is throwing its weight around, not protecting the public. The next time someone wants to use drones for search and rescue, it should do us all a favor and go missing.
(Steve Chapman is a columnist of The Chicago Tribune and Creators Syndicate.)