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Community Airspace and the Invasion of the Drones

Unmanned aircraft are coming, and they will raise a lot of issues for local governments to sort out.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' recent announcement that his company is developing a drone-based delivery service certainly set the media airwaves abuzz. But the prospect of fleets of unmanned aircraft not only delivering books and DVDs from warehouse to doorstep but also surveying crops or conducting law-enforcement surveillance in the not-so-far future opens the door to an issue that has received little attention: Shouldn't the airspace above a community be considered part of its infrastructure?

For his part, Bezos told his 60 Minutes interviewers he's optimistic that what Amazon calls Prime Air will be added someday to the company's shipping options. But "I know it can't be before 2015," he added, "because that's the earliest we could get the rules from the FAA."

Bezos was referring to federal law requiring integration of unmanned aerial systems into the nation's airspace by 2015. The Federal Aviation Administration is in the process of naming and setting up six test sites around the country to facilitate that integration. There's considerable state and local interest in hosting a site, with its promise of job creation and economic development.

Communities around these six test sites will see drones flying in the near future. And as unmanned vehicles begin to fill the skies beyond those communities, a question that will have to be answered is this: What rights and authority does a community have to control the airspace above it?

Aside from privacy issues, there is the broader concern of "the commons" -- natural resources such as air, water and land that are not privately owned but held in common and available to all members of a community. A few drones may be one thing, but if nonmilitary unmanned aircraft become a commercial success, there will be very real issues of visual and noise "pollution" from flying devices in our shared airspaces.

Garret Hardin's 1968 essay The Tragedy of the Commons described a scenario in which individuals, through self-interest, overutilize these shared resources, resulting in the degradation of the commons. How do we avert such a future for our community airspace? Regulation is certainly one approach. At a minimum there is a need for clear analysis and debate to ensure that the interests of the retailer and customer don't over-reach those of the larger community. The current debate over whether to allow cellphone conversations during air travel is an example of a similar issue.

Carving out the extent of local-government authority over community airspace would be a starting point. Where and at what altitude would such an authority begin and end? Would a city's airspace be above and parallel to its existing transportation roadway infrastructure? Would a homeowner have rights to the airspace immediately above or adjacent to his or her house? How would such rights be enforced? The list of questions could go on and on.

Technology often comes as a double-edged sword. We love technology-enabled tools that allow us to have, see and share things now. But our connected and "always on" lifestyle too often diminishes other aspects of our quality of life, such as uninterrupted space and time.

Now that Jeff Bezos has introduced us to Amazon Prime Air, we need to start a conversation about the broader implications, both promises and pitfalls, of drone technology at the local level. There's no doubt that this technology is coming. How to make it improve rather than detract from our quality of life needs be worked out. Just as a community manages water, waste, buildings and ground transportation, control of its airspace is a rightful role for local government.

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