On Feb. 15, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed a new rule that would allow select commercial entities to operate unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) for business purposes. This sample paper will explore the decision and provide an insider’s look into the commercial aviation business.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s risky decision
According to the FAA’s proposal, UAS operators with special certifications would be able to fly 55 lbs.-or-under drones at altitudes of 500 feet at maximum speeds of 100 mph. Operators would be required to retake FAA competency tests every two years, and obey the following guidelines:
- Keep drones within an unaided line of sight
- Avoid manned aircraft, and always yield at the sight of air traffic
- Discontinue flights that pose any danger to people, property, or aircraft
- Observe weather conditions, airspace regulations, and nearby populations in advance of launching drones
- Never fly drones over people who are not involved in the UAS
- Be mindful of FAA temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), and keep drones away from airports and restricted airspaces
The proposal further states that UAS operators would be prohibited from dropping objects from drones (“DOT and FAA Propose”). Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx explained that while the FAA recognizes the interest that UAS holds across the agriculture, energy, entertainment the agency’s first priority is to keep:
“the American people safe as we move to integrate these new types of aircraft into our skies,” (Cooper).
For regulators, the main concern is to prevent UASs from wandering into airspace trafficked by civilian planes. Last November, a commercial aircraft flying near Oklahoma City avoided impact with a drone by a mere 20 feet, marking the closest in a string of near collisions that occurred during 2014.
Current regulations on commercial drone use
As for now, anyone wishing to use drones for commercial purposes must go through the arduous process of getting a FAA exemption, nearly two dozen of which have been granted since energy giant AeroVironment—which uses drones for Alaskan aerospace surveys—set the precedent last June. The proposed new rules would make things much easier for industries that wish to utilize drones.
In early January, realtor Douglas Trudeau was granted an FAA exception to capture video footage of listed homes with an aerial drone, providing that he earn a pilot’s license, meet aviation medical standards, keep flights lower than 300 feet and under 35 mph, and request advanced permission to operate a drone.
It could ultimately take years for a decision to be reached on the FAA’s proposed rules. While the rules would make no difference to the regulations currently in place on recreational model-drone usage, the agency is considering a further proposal that would allow for standard and urban drone delivery operations beyond sight range for drones weighting 4.4 pounds or less.
U.S. lagging behind Europe’s UMA regulations
In the minds of many interested parties, the FAA’s proposal stops well short of allowing industries to harness the full potential of UAS technology. This holds especially true when compared to what operators have been allowed to do in France, Germany, and the U.K., where small, unmanned aircrafts are being used for pipeline inspections, agriculture, and personal deliveries.
Last September, German delivery firm DHL began testing its unique custom drone—the parcelcopter—for the purpose of medicine deliveries to the Deutsch island of Juist. While no plans currently exist to make this the standard mode for sending things off-land, the company feels that “use of parcelcopters to deliver urgently needed goods to thinly populated or remote areas or in emergencies is an interesting option for the future,” (Ribeiro).
Impact drones have on commercial interests
As drone-savvy stateside companies ponder the thought of being outshone by overseas competition, some are considering moving their bases across the Atlantic. The biggest bone of contention among U.S. companies is the FAA’s line-of-sight policy, which many would call unrealistic in regards to drones at altitudes of 500 feet.
According to Small UAV Coalition executive Michael Drobac, it’s doubtful that a person on the ground could “objectively see” a vehicle at such heights. Technology that would allow operators:
“to receive a view from the aircraft through an iPad or another device would improve visibility. The set-up in the US is not hospitable to testing,” (Pilkington).
As the need for faster deliveries increases, customer behavior analysis shows they demand new services from businesses they trust. Amazon, for instance, is currently developing a UAS-operated delivery service. However, the Seattle-based online shopping giant says that the service—tentatively called Amazon Prime Air—would not be able to operate in the U.S., even with the FAA’s proposed rule changes.
Legal opinions regarding commercial drone usage
Echoing Drobac’s concerns regarding the line-of-sight policy, Pepperdine law professor Greg McNeal told NPR that the timber industry could make good use of drones, but:
“because of trees and obstructions, they won’t be able to see where the aircraft is,” (Naylor).
Fellow law professor Ryan Calo of the University of Washington reasoned that the FAA’s proposal would benefit certain businesses like Walmart, Target, Amazon, eBay, etc. Still, he thinks the agency could make its regulations friendlier towards delivery businesses
“especially if someone shows [that] autonomous flight modes can be safe,” (Shane).
Meanwhile, New York-based lawyer and drone expert Brendan Schulman has taken aim at the FAA’s restrictions on night flight by countering that lit drones are operated regularly by hobbyists. A similar point has been made by Gene Robinson of RP Flight Systems, who quipped that a
“drone is just as deaf and dumb at night as it is in the day. It doesn’t care what time it is,” (Pilkington).
Robinson further insisted that night restrictions will deprive search-and-rescue teams of a technology that could be of vital use during nighttime missions.
Technology for a drone-friendly future
In spite of the FAA’s policy, some developers are already working on technology that would operate drones beyond the line of sight, including Menlo Park, Calif., auto-pilot startup Skydio. Talking up the commercial-industrial potential for the technology, company CEO Adam Bry insisted:
“any job where somebody goes and looks at something is probably going to be better done by a drone,” (Naylor).
Meanwhile, San Francisco-based UAV Coalition member Airware has developed software that allows for the streaming of data collected by drone sensors. Jesse Kallman, the company’s director of business development, criticized the FAA’s proposal while pointing out that France has:
“begun flying beyond line-of-sight, they only require a small camera on the nose of the aircraft so that the operator can detect aerial conflicts,” (Pilkington).
Cooper, Aaron. “FAA proposes to allow commercial drone use.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.
“DOT and FAA Propose New Rules for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” FAA News. Federal Aviation Administration. 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.
Ribeiro, John. “DHL ‘parcelcopter’ drone to deliver medicines to European island.” PCWorld. IDG Consumer & SMB. 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.
Pilkington, Ed. “US experts join companies protesting FAA commercial drones proposals.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Ltd. 22 Feb. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.
Naylor, Brian. “FAA’s Proposed Drone Rules Ground Many Commercial Aspirations.” NPR. National Public Radio, Inc. 21 Feb. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.
Shane, Scott. “F.A.A. Rules Would Limit Commercial Drone Use.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.
Weidlich, John. “Aerial drone locates Sask. man injured in rollover crash.” CBC News. CBC/Radio-Canada. 9 May 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.