The increasing prevalence of drones in our skies and streets is going to usher in some spectacular benefits, as well as some unintended consequences. The technology is already way ahead of the law.

On Thursday, 1,600 people in the Silicon Valley city of Mountain View lost their electricity when a white-haired white man driving a white car flew a (white?) drone into a high-voltage wire, as reported in a statement by the city and spotted by The Mercury News. The drone operator then fled the scene.

According to the City of Mountain View, officers were investigating reports of a power outage impacting "roughly 1,600 PG&E customers." Witnesses told officers "that a white adult man with white hair had been flying a drone in the area...and the drone subsequently crashed into a high-voltage wire."

The power outage lasted about three hours, resulted in an evacuation of the city library, and cost "tens of thousands of dollars." 

FAA guidelines for drones require that the operator notify any airport control tower within 5 miles. [Correction: As of May 19, the ruling in John Taylor v FAA finds that recreational drones and model aircraft do not need to be registered.] 

The investigation into the case is ongoing.

Drones for solar, wind and grid inspection

As we've reported, it's the energy sector that's leading one of the largest industry efforts to move drones into the field.

Companies like DroneDeploy, a cloud software platform, and DJI, a maker of drones and camera technology, are addressing solar panel installation and inspection. The companies claim that customers can reduce residential solar system measurement times by up to 50 percent.

Duke Energy is testing the ability of infrared cameras deployed by drones to detect reliability issues in solar panels.

The wind sector currently inspects massive turbine blades for defects by suspending humans from ropes. As reported by GTM's Julia Pyper, drone-maker Sharper Shape and others are selling drone inspection technology "with lidar for 3-D modeling, ultraviolet and thermal sensors to detect hotspots on the grid, and a still camera with sub-millimeter resolution that can show something as small as a splinter in a wind blade." Drones can also collect wind data at potential sites instead of deploying met towers.

Renewables aside, drones can help inspect the 382,000 miles of transmission lines, 45,000 substations, and more than 5,500 generation units in the U.S., catching problems before they happen. Drones can also guard against physical threats at utility facilities.

Legislation lagging behind technology

Lawmakers are concerned with whether a drone can be flown beyond visual line of sight. Can a drone fly over private property or a public park? To what extent should drones be identified and regulated? Should states be making these decisions or should it be done at the federal level? What restrictions should be placed on law enforcement's operations of drones? Those are just a few of the questions legislators are trying to answer.

The most common local ordinances restrict the operation of drones over private property without the property owner’s consent, according to the Drones at Home report from The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

The Drone Federalism Act of 2017 is a bill that would "affirm state regulatory authority regarding the operation of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones."

More than 35 state legislatures in the U.S. are studying and debating how drones should be used -- hoping to balance privacy and safety concerns with commerce and civil rights. Legislating at the state level will, of course, create a regulatory patchwork for the 327,000 commercial drones that the FAA Aerospace Forecast expects to be filling the skies by 2020.