In recent weeks, the American casual dining restaurant chain TGI Fridays has gotten a lot of buzz as a result of news that it would deploy a mistletoe drone in its restaurants. The idea was that the mistletoe-carrying drone would fly around the restaurant and hover above unsuspecting customers, thereby forcing them to kiss. All of this would be recorded by the drone’s onboard camera, of course.
The restaurant chain got a bit of negative news coverage today, however, when Brooklyn Daily reported that one of its journalists was injured when a small, mistletoe-carrying quadcopter struck her in the face. The reporter sustained a cut on her nose and chin. The headline for the story proclaims, “Drone Strike!” The URL for the story uses the phrase “drone disaster.”
What happened here was hardly a “drone disaster,” however. From the photos provided, it appears that the quadcopter in question was something very similar to this toy available for around $50 on Amazon. From the photos, it also looks like the quadcopter did have prop guards, which could account for why the damage to the reporter’s face appeared to be pretty minor.
But the story could have ended much differently, in something closer to a real “drone disaster.” The Brooklyn Daily piece also includes photos of a much larger, six-bladed “hexacopter” flying without prop guards right above diners. Were the operator to lose control of this larger drone and crash into someone, the chance of serious injury would be much higher. Doing a quick Google search for “quadcopter injury” and “quadcopter cut finger” provides an idea of what can go wrong. As such, having a device like this flying indoors and in such close proximity to people seems dangerously irresponsible.
FAA Rules and Mistletoe Drones
This incident might raise questions about how TGI Fridays can deploy a mistletoe drone. Hasn’t the FAA banned commercial use of drones? It is also likely to provide ammunition for those who want the FAA to take a stronger line against commercial use of drones. There are a couple of things to note, however.
First, though the FAA currently says that commercial use of drones is illegal, that only applies to the use of drones outside. The FAA has the legal authority to regulate the “navigable airspace,” which has not historically included interior airspace inside of buildings. Though the FAA has argued recently that navigable airspace includes all airspace all the way to the ground, even over private property, they have not gone so far as to attempt to include airspace inside buildings.
Second, we learned recently that the agency is leaning towards a scheme in which commercial drone operators would be required to have a pilot’s license for a traditional, manned aircraft to fly the kinds of drones featured in the TGI Fridays story. However, it is unclear whether such rules would be enforceable against someone operating a drone indoors. This is to say nothing about the issue of whether knowing how to fly a Cessna is at all relevant to the safe operation of a toy quadcopter.
In the end, it is likely infeasible and an overreach to have the FAA regulate what can and cannot be done inside homes and businesses with flying toys. A significant portion of safe drone use, whether for commercial or recreational purposes, comes down to good judgment and common sense. Whether the mistletoe drone or other, similar uses meet those criteria is an open question that might only be answered definitely by a court when someone sues after being seriously injured in a real drone disaster.
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