Drones in 2015 move from ‘wow, that’s neat’ to ‘uh-oh’

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In 2015, as drones started swarming the skies, the  small unmanned aircraft transformed from novelty gadget to regulatory headache.

Drones, most often camera-equipped quadcopters whose four computer-controlled rotors keep them aloft, are hot items as consumers snap them up and businesses put them to use. While the FAA bans businesses from using them, it’s easy for some to shirk the law. A real estate agent, for example, can zip a drone above a house for a quick aerial photo without the authorities ever noticing.

With both drone markets moving fast —  Amazon just unveiled its newest ideas for delivery drones — the regulatory agency is scrambling to modernize its drone rules. This year, it proposed rules for business uses and a registration requirement for consumers.

It’s a tough balancing act. On one side are consumer demand and commercial innovation, and on the other, serious risks to the public and to traditional aircraft. The entertainment and business advantages of aerial photography will pale as soon as a drone collides with a traffic helicopter or drops a heavy video camera onto a concert crowd. In 2016, such risks won’t go away, but with a requirement to register drones, there’s a stronger incentive not to fly drones irresponsibly. Authorities should have an easier time handling trouble like  drones crashing on the White House lawn or disrupting firefighting.