FAA Publicizes Drone Safety Rules for Amateurs; But Industry Flights Still Blocked

John Doyle

While U.S. businesses, large and small, wait impatiently for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to formulate rules for commercial unmanned aircraft operations, the agency in charge of aviation safety is worried thousands of Americans may have received small drones as presents during this past holiday season.

The FAA, which regulates who and what can fly in the National Airspace System, recently joined with three unmanned aircraft trade groups for a safety education program, "Know Before You Fly," to ensure that new drone hobbyists know what they can and cannot do with their small airplanes and helicopters.

"This is an issue of growing concern," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told reporters in a teleconference announcing the safety program’s rollout in late December. "The price of unmanned aircraft has come down and this newer and more powerful technology is more affordable to more people, yet many are unfamiliar with the rules of flying."
Retailers and manufacturers are offering drones for prices ranging from $20 to thousands of dollars, and Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), also known as unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), were drawing a lot of consumer interest and anticipated "tens of thousands" could have been received as gifts during the 2014 season.

Because most of those new UAS owners are unlikely to be familiar with federal aviation regulations, AUVSI, the largest robotics trade group, has joined with the Academy of Model Aeronautics, and the Small UAV Coalition and the FAA to ensure they fly safely and responsibly. Using educational video, point-of-sale materials and a digital and social media campaign new UAS operators will learn a few key rules: Don’t fly above 400 feet; keep your aircraft within sight and don’t fly within five miles of an airport without first notifying FAA air traffic control or the airport operator.

While recreational use of drones under those restrictions is allowed, commercial use like aerial photography, monitoring crops or oil pipelines is still barred until the FAA rules on the issue. Congress has mandated the agency come up with a plan to integrate drones into commercial airspace by 2015 – a deadline the FAA was expected to miss. "We’re very focused on getting it out quickly," Huerta told reporters Dec. 22. Meanwhile, UAS manufacturers and the companies that want to use them have grown increasingly frustrated that the general public can fly drones, but organizations that want to use them for more than entertainment cannot.

To answer some of the criticism, the FAA has taken an incremental approach, granting a small number of companies in certain industries – most recently aerial survey, construction and energy refining – exemptions to the onerous certification process.

Four entities that received commercial exemptions on Dec. 10 were Trimble Navigation Limited, VDOS Global LLC, Clayco Inc. and Woolpert Inc., which received two exemptions. That action follows others in October and November allowing seven film and video production companies to fly UAS over movie sets under strict conditions.

While praising the latest FAA action as a positive step, AUVSI called on the agency to take broader action. "Granting exemptions on a case by case basis is not an effective way to regulate the use of UAS in the long term," said AUVSI’s Toscano. Instead, the Virginia-based trade group urged the FAA to begin the federal rulemaking process" and finalize a rule for the use of UAS as quickly as possible to allow UAS technology to realize its full potential and allow a wide range of industries to reap its benefits."

At a recent IQPC conference on UAS in Washington, James Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, said the agency’s upcoming Small Unmanned Aircraft rule "will address areas of pent up demand." However, even when the proposed rules are published in the Federal Register, Williams told IQPC’s UAS Commercialization Industry Conference, the entire rule-making process usually takes 18-24 months, therefore small UAS are unlikely to be flying commercially in the United States before 2017.
Speakers from NASA told conference attendees how the space agency is testing detect and avoid technologies for unmanned aircraft and monitoring hurricanes. Other speakers discussed the wide-ranging utility of UAS in firefighting, journalism, law enforcement, and monitoring agricultural activities.

The directors of unmanned aircraft research centers in Alaska, North Dakota, Ohio/Indiana and Texas described UAS applications in monitoring sea mammals and Arctic ice, coordinating large casualty emergency response, testing command and control links, studying precision agriculture applications like insecticide control and yield estimates.

There are still significant technological, regulatory and management barriers inhibiting integrating UAS into the National Airspace, according to Matt Hampton, of the U.S. Transportation Department’s Inspector General Office. Those roadblocks include a lack of consensus on standards for technology that allows UAS to detect and avoid other aircraft; no effective system for collecting and analyzing data to identify safety risks and a missing regulatory framework for UAS integration.

IQPC will host the next iteration of the UAS Commercialization conference this June. For more information, visit www.uascommercialization.com.