Well it’s finally arrived; the proposal which seems set to be passed with the authority akin to an executive order on drone usage. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has released today a new, rather concise and specific set of long-awaited rules of operation for commercial drones. What it does is set a framework for remote-controlled aircraft to share the skies with other types of aircraft.
It was only a few days ago that there was a leak, of sorts, regarding this very proposal, which explains in some lengthy, yet surprisingly simple wordage what the proposed plan would be, and the whys. A final decision is due by September this year and it seems the urgency is such that its deliverance on deadline is very important. Even the President signed an official presidential memorandum today governing how federal agencies will use all variations of drones.
This memo, which also bears the same legal effect of an executive order, is meant to ensure that drone usage, even by federal agencies doesn’t violate the First Amendment or discriminate against people for any reason up to and including race, and religion. Such a thing as this requires a certain amount of transparency so agencies will have to publish their policies and how to access them, again within a year. In the same transparent vein, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is set to begin drafting a framework to ensure privacy and transparency.
Some of the specifics will be discussed a bit further along, but it’s important to understand, as photographers, that the use of drones is much further reaching than for aerial photo/videography. Already surveillance of the southern US border is heavily done by drones, but the list of major uses will grow. They are currently being used by agriculture, law enforcement, military, search and rescue, coastal security, and hopefully even more in critical infrastructure inspection and first responder medical support. Again, that list is only set to expand, and money plays no small part in it, as the cost for a drone to do a bridge inspection or surveillance of a large area, for example, is far less than traditional methods.
According to The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, commercial drones will create 70,000 jobs with a fiscal impact of $13.6 billion in the first three years, bumping up significantly by 2015. Interesting to note that there has been little specific disclosure on how this would be generated, or how many jobs will be ‘lost’ due to the new technology.
Currently, the rules set forth so far address drones 55lbs and under. The rules seem very favorable to companies that do commercial work, in which photography would fall under. Currently, the FAA bans all commercial drone flights, spare those by a small number of drone companies which have been given a waiver. (This is interesting given photographic drone usage already for ‘commercial’ purposes – even though the regulations don’t apply to ‘hobbyists’). The demand is so high, however, that it’s probably a large reason why these regulations are being pushed through.
Some of the rules would be that drone operators would be no younger than 17, they must pass an aeronautics test, and be vetted by the TSA. There will be no minimum required number of flight hours however, unlike a private pilot’s license. Furthermore, that drones would be required to operate below an altitude of 500ft, and have forward momentum of nothing greater than 100mph.
The operators would also be regulated to operate the drones only within eyesight, and no use of onboard cameras to fly the drone further, nothing would be able to be dropped from the aircraft, and there would be laws against reckless operation. If any of these seem harsh, all of the proposal is to be made public to hear responses and suggestions. Already, there have been outcries from both camps who want stricter, and more loose regulations. There’s also the Unmanned Aerial Systems America Fund which is asking the FAA for a separate list of regulations for drones up to 3lbs that fly lower than 400ft.
It appears that some of the regulations are being contested by certain groups, especially those within the aviation community. As someone part of that community, it’s not hard to understand at least some of those reasons.
While I don’t like the tide of progress to be held back, nor do I think it can be, drone operation poses a significant threat to commercial aviation. Should all regulations be followed, it would appear that no mishaps would happen, but do rules ever get entirely followed? No. Recently, there was a Southwest pilot flying into LAX who reported a drone that flew above him at 4000ft. If that drone was to enter an intake, there could very well be a catastrophic failure of the engine, and possibly the entire aircraft. Airline pilots have been calling for a very high level of training for drone operators, and I for one, am with them.
This wouldn’t spell well for aerial photographers, but I think that’s a small price to pay. That’s my personal feeling, and I don’t expect all to understand or agree. It seems like the monetary value of the drone operation is so high, that the government feels being a little more lax is worth it. What are your thoughts on the matter?
See news report of drone and SouthWest aircraft below: