By Jordan Ferguson.
The FAA unveiled its proposed rules for unmanned aerial vehicles earlier this week, beginning a process that could eventually allow for thousands of businesses to fly drones. At the same time, the White House issued a presidential directive requiring federal agencies to disclose where they fly drones domestically, and what they do with the massive amounts of data those drones collect. Together, these actions begin to lay out the new framework for domestic drone operation, highlighting some key concerns of public safety and privacy, while also loosening some regulations that might serve neither.
The FAA’s proposed rules (which would apply to drones weighing 55 pounds or less — the FAA is still working on rules for larger drones, and the proposed rules leave open the possibility of lighter regulation of micro-drones) would drastically simplify the process of obtaining clearance to use a drone for commercial purposes, as operators would be required to pass a written proficiency test and register the drone (with associated fees around $200), but would not have to obtain a regular pilot license or be required to demonstrate flying skills. The proposed rules still carry significant limitations, however. Operators would be allowed to fly drones only during daylight hours, at speeds no greater than 100 mph, and below an altitude of 500 feet. The drones would also be required to remain within eyesight of the operator or observers posted on the ground, and would be prohibited from flying over bystanders not directly involved in their operation.
These proposed rules would thus still preclude many of the proposed uses of drones — like deliveries of Amazon goods or pizza — yet would still widely expand the current market for legal use of commercial drones. These rules would not apply to drone hobbyists who utilize UAVs recreationally, as under a law passed by Congress in 2012, the FAA is largely prohibited from regulating them as long as they do not interfere with air traffic. Congress also ordered the FAA to integrate drones into domestic airspace by September 2015.
These rules will face the same enforcement issues that have previously challenged the FAA. Most drones are too small to appear on radar, making tracking them very difficult. Additionally, even when they are spotted flouting FAA rules, it is difficult to chase them down, much less to track them back to their pilot.
Despite the nominal focus on commercial drones, the proposed rules are also likely to lead to a huge expansion in drone use by government agencies, such as police and fire departments. Currently, agencies must go through a burdensome application process to receive FAA approval to operate drones, a decision made on a case-by-case basis. The new regulations propose lifting many of these obstacles to allow government agencies to fly their own drones or hire contractors to do so. The requirements will be more akin to commercial use, which will require operators to take a written test, but will no longer require that they hold a valid pilot’s license.
These proposed rules will drastically expand the potential uses for drones. But before they are enacted, they must undergo a lengthy period of public review and comment that will likely take until at least early 2017. During that time, the public, from commercial business owners to local governments and public safety agencies, can weigh in to shape the discussion about these rules — whether they go far enough to open domestic airspace to drones and if they fully address all of the concerns drone use can raise.
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