After years of caution, the Federal Aviation Administration now proposes to dramatically lower barriers affecting commercial drones in US airspace.
The FAA tried to strike the right balance between innovation and safety in. If approved after a 60-day comment period and further analysis, the rules would , including real estate photography, movie making, plant inspection, construction monitoring, livestock tracking, and search and rescue.
"The proposed rules show that FAA was listening to various coalitions and public input," said Mark Segal, chief executive of SkyPan International, which has flown camera-carrying drones for more than 20 years. SkyPan's real estate developer clients can use those images to show prospective customers the view from a building's 20th floor before it's even built. "Once in place the rule will be excellent."
Drones -- also called unmanned aerial systems or vehicles (UASs and UAVs) -- are largely a hobbyist phenomenon today -- the kind of thing that appeals to the sort of folks who might be running radio-controlled cars or building model train sets. Plenty of companies would like to use them for tasks like photographing real estate and monitoring crops, but the FAA has banned their commercial use in most cases. The FAA's proposal, expected to become an official rule in 2015 or 2016, opens the door to a future with robot aircraft buzzing around our skies and maybe even .
"We are very pleased the FAA is taking a reasonable and practical approach to integrating commercial UAS into the National Air Space," said DJI, a Chinese maker of enthusiast-oriented drones like the , in a statement. "We are very encouraged and stand ready to collaborate with the FAA to implement common-sense proposals as quickly as possible."
It's not as sci-fi a future as some would hope. Companies including Amazon, Google, Matternet and AMP Electric Vehicles are working on automated drone systems for delivering packages. Yet those uses still wouldn't be allowed under the FAA's proposed rules. Amazon has expressed its displeasure and threatened to move its research and development operations to a more permissive country.
The FAA proposals also mandate that drones must be operated by someone who can see them. Some drone fans would prefer drones that run on their own autopilot, for example tracking a route along a long pipeline for an inspection.
But the rules are more liberal than they could have been. Until now, the FAA has required drone operators to have pilot's licenses. That provision isn't in the proposed new rules. The agency is also considering a "more flexible framework" for very light drones weighing less than 4.4 pounds (2kg) if public sentiment is in favor.
"This latest proposal is actually more workable that what I expected to see as version 1.0 from the FAA," said Ladd Sanger, an aviation attorney with Slack & Davis who has been involved in dozens of cases involving aircraft accidents.
What's in the proposed rules?
The FAA's proposal ( PDF) has a number of provisions for what it calls "small" drones -- those weighing less than 55 pounds (25kg). Among them:
- Drones must be controlled by a person who can see the drone directly and may not be flown directly overhead.
- Drones are limited to an altitude of 500 feet, a maximum speed of 100mph, and operations between sunrise and sunset.
- Any accidents or property damage must be reported within 10 days, and drones must be presented to FAA officials on request.
- Operators don't need a pilot's license, but they do require a certificate from the FAA. The certificate doesn't expire but holders must pass an aeronautical knowledge test every two years.
"The UAS pilot certificate is good," said Mark Dombroff, who leads drone work at law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge and previously advised the FAA at the US Justice Department. "It requires all the aviation knowledge as a regular pilot's certificate requires without the inflight time that makes a private pilot's certificate so expensive to get."
Indeed, Dombroff was surprised how low the FAA is trying to set the hurdle to commercial drone use. "My concern is that there will be people entering the UAS business who are attracted by the potential economics. This really requires aggressive monitoring and enforcement by the FAA to insure that the rules are observed."
The FAA primarily focuses on relatively large aircraft flying from designated airports. It doesn't have enough staff to monitor thousands of new businesses operating all over the country.
Yet businesses are anxious to see more progress. The FAA had planned to release final regulations by September 2015, but Dombroff, Sanger and Segal all think 2016 is more likely. "The FAA recognized they couldn't control the timetable and that UAVs were going to be used with or without the FAA having a regulation," Sanger said.
SkyPan's Segal isn't waiting for the final regulations. Instead, he's pursuing an FAA exemption to the current rules. "We're awaiting our exemption petition in order to retain important clients who contracted us for years but are now skittish," Segal said.
In the big picture, Dombroff believes the FAA's generally drone-friendly approach will ease passage of the regulations by easing the concerns of drone fans. That'll be especially true if the FAA treats sub-4.4-pound drones as casually as it does hobbyist drones.
"The laxness of this proposal likely removes a lot of potential opposition," Dombroff said.