Wild skies: how long will drones for hire fly in a legal limbo?

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Today, the FAA published an expected road map for its UAV deployment. By the end of 2014, the agency hopes to have a certification process for existing aircraft largely in place; it should also have published certification guidelines for pilots. After the rules for small unmanned aircraft are codified in 2015, the FAA will continue to work on rules for other craft until 2020.

It was late September, and a 3-pound drone was soaring over Midtown Manhattan. But as it headed around a skyscraper, the pilot apparently misjudged the distance: the craft smashed into the side of the building, falling dozens of stories to the streets below and almost hitting a pedestrian. The month before, a similar camera-equipped unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) tumbled into spectators as it filmed a Virginia bull run. And in July, the crash of an unmanned, retrofitted F-4 fighter temporarily shut down part of Florida’s highway 98. None of the incidents caused lasting damage or injury, but they all highlight a growing question: how will the FAA set the bar for safety when it opens the skies to commercial drones?

The word “drone” evokes the Reapers and Predators used by the military abroad, but back inside the US, it’s more likely to refer to small craft equipped with cameras and imaging sensors or hobbyist quadcopters flown for fun. Chris Anderson of drone company 3D Robotics has estimated that there are already thousands of these unmanned devices in the air, where they can generally fly below 400 feet away from populated areas with no need for a license or permit. But once you want to do more than send up an unmanned plane for your own enjoyment, things get more complicated.


Government agencies, fire departments, some universities, and other public institutions can get case-by-case authorization to operate, which is why you see mosquito control groups looking for breeding sites with the Condor Aerial Maveric or police using drones in search-and-rescue missions. Commercial operators, though, need to apply for a limited experimental license in order to fly legally. This summer, the FAA certified two models of small UAV for commercial use, but most “drones for hire” are still illegal, even if their operators are rarely penalized.

The FAA has been working to change that with the small UAS [unmanned aircraft system] rule, which covers any craft under 55 pounds — the “systems” designation is used to connote a complex combination of ground control, aircraft, and data link rather than the “vehicle” in “UAV.” Progress, however, has been slow. Currently, the FAA is expected to release a draft by the end of 2013; the guidelines were originally due in December of 2011, and what exactly they’ll entail isn’t clear. Ray Young, who sits on a federal UAS advisory committee run by industry group RTCA, puts it bluntly: “We don’t know what’s in them.”


Besides straightforward safety issues, the FAA will have to deal with the privacy concerns raised by a cheap, widespread technology that lowers the barrier to launching a high-flying mobile camera. Few people would object to search-and-rescue missions, but things like the “inevitable” surveillance drones outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg has predicted over New York are a different story. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA)has brought a bill that would make the FAA build anti-surveillance protections into its rules, but right now, it’s not clear exactly who is responsible: the FAA has generally stayed out of privacy questions, and other agencies haven’t stepped up to the plate.

Missy Cummings of MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department predicts that states will end up adopting a patchwork of rules, especially while the question of small UAVs flying over state lines is fairly remote. And although one of the biggest concerns has been police spying, the FAA’s current rulemaking isn’t aimed at reining in public services.

While low-flying security cameras remain a hot issue, Young’s committee is working at the other end of the spectrum: larger UAVs that can fly at the very upper end of usable airspace. Medium or large unmanned aircraft could carry water for firefighters, transport cargo, or sit in the air as flying cellphone towers — and with a real legal framework, Young thinks the US could see a new wave of civilian drones. But that framework won’t be coming anytime soon. Congress only stipulated that the FAA make rules for small UAVs by 2015. Anything larger will be integrated in the years afterwards, and more rules could take until 2020 to release. “There is no mandate for the FAA to integrate medium- to large-sized UAVs,” says Cummings. “It’s not even on the FAA’s radar right now.”

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