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GoPro Drone "Recall" Raises Oversight Questions

When GoPro pulled all of its newly released Karma drones from the market on Tuesday and asked consumers to return already purchased units for a full refund, it was a first-of-its-kind event. But it wasn't technically a "recall." (More on that in a moment.) And the episode raised a larger question of which government agency has responsibility for dealing with defective drones that fall from the sky.

GoPro pulled the $800 machines from the market after discovering that “a small number” of the drones lost power during operation, and plummeted to earth. The drone, the first for the action-sports camera company, had been on the market only since October 23, and approximately 2,500 of the devices had been sold to consumers.

GoPro reports that no injuries or property damage have been associated with Karma’s in-flight failures.

While the company has called the move a "recall," that term can be confusing. For most products, a recall is a legal process in which a government agency has oversight authority and, along with other protections, it actually becomes illegal to continue to sell the devices under recall. 

But with drones, it's not clear which government body should be overseeing the process. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) spokesperson Scott Wolfson says simply, "We do not have jurisdiction over drones."

The FAA, meanwhile, has strict authority over how drones are flown, both by commercial and non-commercial users, but the agency doesn't regulate the devices itself, except in the broadest terms. FAA spokesperson Alison Duquette explains that the agency does not "certificate" drones during the manufacturing process the way that it does larger aircraft.

"If a drone manufacturing defect that affects aviation safety were identified," she explains. "The FAA would first contact the manufacturer to understand the issue and determine the best course of action to address the safety issue."

GoPro Did the Right Thing. Will Others?

The lack of clear oversight left GoPro in a somewhat awkward position after it discovered the issues with the Karma. 

'We contacted the CPSC," And we said 'It looks like there’s a statutory carveout for aviation,'" says GoPro spokesperson Jeff Brown. "However, if you would like us to participate in the process we're more than happy to do that. They said 'No, you don't need to participate.'"

GoPro also contacted the FAA before going ahead with its voluntary Karma return program, Brown says. "We called the FAA and they said 'We are not going to particpate in the process but we agree you should go ahead with your recall if that's what you think.'" 

Representatives of the CPSC and the FAA confirmed that GoPro had contacted them about the return program. 

Despite this jurisdictional uncertainty, GoPro seems to be doing what companies should do—taking measures to remove unsafe products from the market and protect consumers. The company is offering an incentive for affected consumers to return the devices, providing a free GoPro Hero5 Black camera, which has a street price of $350, in addition to a full refund on the drone.

But GoPro's issue with the Karma raises the question: If a similar failure was to affect a drone made by a company that was less responsive to consumer safety, would any government agency step in to try and get the products off the market?

That's why on June 6, Consumer's Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, wrote a letter to the CPSC suggesting that drones were "an emerging hazard." The letter added, "The CPSC is the agency with the expertise to address potential product safety hazards and we urge it not to hesitate to get involved, even when another agency is wielding oversight of a product."

Indeed, the regulatory confusion for GoPro should serve as a warning about the potential problems of dealing with a similar issue in the future.

"While we're glad the company is taking back its products and offering owners full refunds, we're concerned that defective drones seem to fall into a safety gap," says William Wallace, a policy analyst for Consumers Union. "Congress should clarify which agency is in charge so that the agency can coordinate recalls and protect consumers from safety defects that could hurt them."

In the GoPro return program, the company is urging all users, including those who have not yet experienced any issue with their drones, to return the product with all its accessories to the company or the retailer where it was bought for a full refund. An original receipt is not needed to receive a refund.

The company is not issuing replacements for the defective drones at this point, although it did suggest that the Karma drone will return to the market once the safety issue is resolved. 

The GoPro Karma attempted to differentiate itself from other entrants in the fast-growing camera drone segment by featuring folding wings that allowed the Karma to be carried in a small backpack. 

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