Six weeks later than it had promised, the Federal Aviation Administration has finally faced up to the problem of regulating the flight of small drones in U.S. airspace.
The proposed rules will do nothing to restrain or control the escalating swarm of recreational drones, many of which have been merrily zooming around close to the flight paths of commercial airliners–or, in one well-hyped example, crash-landing in a tree close to the White House.
“Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx as he announced the proposals—sounding a bit like a man who has woken up with surprise to find that we are actually into the second decade of the 21st century—“and this milestone allows federal regulations and the use of our national airspace to evolve to safely accommodate innovation.”
The regulations will apply to drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The interests involved in using drones commercially have been stamping feet and shouting with frustration over the years it has taken the FAA to draw up the rules. There is a whole industry-in-waiting, reckoned to be worth billions of dollars, that spans many activities ranging from oil exploration, agriculture, archaeology, news gathering and real estate development—where cameras aboard drones will, literally, bring new eyes.
Some parts of the proposed regime are much as expected: commercial drones will not be allowed to operate at night; they must always remain in sight of the operator; go no higher than 500 feet and no faster than 100 mph.
But the interesting bit is not about the drone itself but about who gets to fly it and how they qualify to do so. The agency is introducing a kind of Drones 101—an operator would have to pass an aeronautical knowledge test in order to be certified able to fly. There are no details yet of what this might involve.
To make any sense the test would have to assure competence in flying skills—like understanding up from down, three-dimensional awareness and acuity and, hopefully, what damage might be done by a 50-pound object impacting a soft-skinned being at 100mph. There is actually a proposed rule for that—the drones “may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.” In fact, that’s a pretty restrictive rule, depending on how you define “over” and distinguish it from “near.”
In Europe the rules for operating similar drones are tougher—flying skills are assessed much like they are for a private pilot’s license, and the drones themselves have to meet design safety standards. The FAA, being realistic, isn’t proposing an equivalent of the airworthiness certification process for airplanes that can take years.
What about those swarms of “recreational” drones, mostly in the form of what are called quadcopters? There is no proficiency test for flying them and they are subject only to the rules for flying model airplanes—not to fly above 400 feet, within five miles of an airport or near crowds, and always remain in sight of the “pilot.”
The reality for commercial drones is a lot tougher. Until the new regulations come into effect after an appeals process and rule-making revisions, which could take years, the use of commercial drones will continue to be permitted only on a case-by-case basis through applications to the FAA.
Some of idea of how glacially this system works is given by the numbers: There are at present 342 applications pending to use commercial drones (in technical jargon “petitions”); 20 have so far been granted and 16 have been closed because the applicants failed to respond to requests from the agency for more information.
There is no doubt about the best place to be if you want free reign to fly a commercial drone: North Dakota. A week ago the FAA greatly expanded the airspace available for research flights by commercial drones there and said that it soon expects to clear as much of two-thirds of the state’s skies for drones. Go north, young man—far, far, far north.