The unprecedented development of UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) or “drone” technology over the past few years has given birth to an extensive amount of potential revenue streams for current operators, from filmmaking all the way to agriculture. Unfortunately, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has struggled to keep up with this rapid pace of development, reflected by its currently inadequate regulation of UAV’s in America.
Under the current policy, UAV’s are classified as Model Aircraft and while operators are not required to obtain permission to fly, they are only allowed to operate within a recreational capacity. This classification strictly disallows operators from flying for any type of profit unless they can acquire a permit from the FAA allowing commercial use.
To date, less than fifty commercial licenses have been granted by the FAA and they have mainly gone to large companies that use the technology for aerial surveying. The FAA has, however, recently proposed a framework of regulations that will allow operators to fly under commercial circumstances.
What is the current policy?
The current policy regarding public drone use is outlined under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 and places drones under the category of Model Aircraft. Individuals who operate within the guidelines of the document have no need to obtain special permission to operate their aircraft. Until the widespread availability of consumer drone technology, individuals operating within this category have been well informed hobbyists with many years of experience flying within FAA guidelines.
When cheap and easily operable drone technology hit mainstream markets, the cases of inexperienced pilots breaking these guidelines in ignorance rose steeply. Specifically, the line between commercial and non-commercial use began to blur as the FAA began cracking down on what they saw as commercial operations. While this hurt the image of both recreational and commercial drone use, it illuminated the need for drones to have a much more specific policy and licensing system within the FAA.
The following guidelines for Model Aircraft have been taken from www.faa.gov:
• Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles
• Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times
• Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations
• Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower
• Don’t fly near people or stadiums
• Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 lbs
• Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft
On February 23, 2015 the FAA issued a document entitled Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking outlining specific guidelines for the limited use of drones within non-recreational space. Though this document merely outlines proposals, it is a large step in the direction of safely integrating drone use with commercial applications. If approved, the average operator would have a much greater opportunity to obtain a commercial license.
As stated by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”
The main details of the document are outlined here:
• The operator must be at least 17 years old
• The operator must pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate
• The operator must pass an FAA aeronautical knowledge test every 24 months to keep the certificate
• The operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property
• The operator must not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight
• Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph
• The operator must ensure that the aircraft is safe before flight
• The Operator must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions
What does this mean for commercial UAV use?
The FAA states that it’s new regulations could lead to benefits in excess of $100 million a year, though many believe this number to be extremely low, as the global UAV market is currently a $2.5 billion industry and growing at a rate of 20%. As it stands, only a very small percentage of operators are allowed to operate commercially in America. If these proposals are approved, they will effectively give birth to what many consider the next big land rush in American tech. The FAA has stated that they will vote on the proposals by the end of this year at the earliest.