Steve Chapman
In March 2012, volunteers spent four days looking for a 2-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.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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