Drone Pros Say FAA Limits Innovation With Slow Lawmaking

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is limiting drones’ potential by failing to come up with clear regulations, industry officials said at Bloomberg’s Next Big Thing Summit.

If the agency was were more responsive to the rise of the flying machines, industries from construction to agriculture could become more efficient, panelists at the event in Sausalito, California, said yesterday.

Drones were just one of several conversations at the conference about the future of technology, where PayPal co-founder Max Levchin also discussed a $45 million fundraising for his payments startup Affirm Inc. and where investors Ron Conway and Chamath Palihapitiya disagreed on how to solve Silicon Valley’s income divide.

The FAA has made policies -- though no laws -- about drone flying, causing uncertainty in the U.S. as the industry thrives in other countries like France, said Brendan Schulman, a lawyer at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, who has defended drone fliers from FAA fines.

“They are hurting the industry,” Schulman said at the event. “They’ve had the issue of unmanned aircrafts on their agenda since 2000.”

If properly regulated, drones could replace search-and-rescue teams, especially in dangerous areas like ski resorts, or help survey buildings for safety, said Jonathan Downey, chief executive officer of Airware, a San Francisco-based company that makes commercial unmanned drones. The machines are already collecting data from hard-to-reach ocean waters and finding poachers in Africa, he said.

Shouting Match

Inequality in San Francisco also was a hot-button issue at the conference. In a session about the topic, Palihapitiya called San Francisco city officials idiots and said the local government wasn’t taxing technology companies enough to create programs to help shrink the city’s growing income divide.

Asked what Mayor Ed Lee should do to fix the city, Palihapitiya said “resign.” Conway, a venture capitalist who is a backer of Lee, raised his voice after the discussion to say Palihapitiya, who lives in Palo Alto, California, which is about 34 miles from San Francisco, was misinformed and that the panelist doesn’t “know what you’re talking about.”

Conway said the mayor has initiated several housing and inequality-focused programs. He also suggested Palihapitiya, an owner of the Golden State Warriors basketball team, contribute more of his own money to helping the city.

In a separate discussion about how to solve the gender gap in the technology industry, a panel of women investors and executives said that all-women high schools or colleges may be key to erasing stereotypes and stigmas.

“It makes you realize how important it is to look at the environment we create in our schools,” said Bahija Jallal, who heads up MedImmune, a biotechnology company that was acquired by AstraZeneca Plc.

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