WASHINGTON—The commercial use of drones is expected to surge. We’ve already seen their utility in military applications, law enforcement and border patrol. At the low cost of a few thousand dollars or few hundred dollars, a drone is cheap to purchase or assemble from a kit.
The range of potential uses is as wide as one’s imagination: Aerial photos to aid fisherman locate schools of fish, and farmers to monitor their crops. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, on 60 Minutes last December, showed Amazon’s laboratory for developing a drone to deliver light packages in a 10-mile radius within 30 minutes.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is mindful of the high interest in the use of drones. “The list of potential uses is now rapidly expanding to encompass a broad range of other activities, including aerial photography, surveying land and crops, communications and broadcast, monitoring forest fires and environmental conditions, and protecting critical infrastructures,” stated the FAA.
However, with few exceptions, the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—the official name for drones—has not been permitted since 2007 in the United States. It first must be integrated in the National Airspace System (NAS).
The frustration with the slow pace at which the FAA is proceeding was palpable at a news conference at the National Press Club last week. Panel members said that the FAA is holding back commercial use of UAS. It’s making glacial progress toward establishing a legal and regulatory framework to safely operate them.
“Until they get these rules of the road out there, nothing commercially is going to take off [with a few exceptions],” said Ben Gielow, who represents a UAS manufacturer trade association. He is general counsel and senior government relations manager of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
Once the FAA writes safety rules, this industry is poised to create 100,000 jobs and over $80 billion economic impact in the next decade, according to AUVSI report last year, said Gielow. “For every day that the FAA is late, it is going to cost our economy $27 million in lost economic potential,” he said.
“The industry is waiting to be regulated. How many industries are begging the federal government to regulate them?” he asked.
The FAA is dragging its feet. It had promised to have the safety regulations in place by 2011, Gielow said.
Congress is also impatient. The 2012 FAA reauthorization bill directed the FAA to safely integrate UAS in the airspace by Sept. 30, 2015. It’s not going to make the date, said Gielow, who cited the GAO and the Department of Transportation Inspector General’s Office.
The rules for small UAS were supposed to be written by August. With the rulemaking process and finalizing the rules, the earliest a 4-pound aircraft will be allowed to fly “anything from real estate photography to helping a farmer monitoring his crops” is the second quarter 2016, Gielow said.
“That simply is not acceptable and the reality is that folks are not waiting,” said Gielow.
Videographer Fined $10,000
One pioneer in the field of videography didn’t wait. Rafael Pirker was fined $10,000 as a commercial operator—a first time for the FAA. Pirker is known for his aerial photos of glaciers in Europe, the canals of Venice, and a flight over the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, according to attorney Brendan Schulman, who represents Pirker and who spoke at the press conference.
In Oct. 2011, Pirker made an aerial promotional video at the University of Virginia. Although the commercial was never produced, Pirker uploaded the video on YouTube for his fans. The FAA also saw it.
“What followed is the first chapter in the legal history of drones in the United States,” said Schulman. He was able to get the $10,000 fine dismissed, but that decision is on appeal to the National Transportation Safety Board and so the matter is still unresolved, said Schulman.
The FAA was invited to the news conference but declined to participate, said David Hodes, the event host. According to verge.com, the FAA said that Pirker deployed his 4.5-pound Ritewing Zephyr-powered glider “in a careless or reckless manner” that put nearby lives and private property in danger.
“The FAA says Pirker operated the styrofoam ‘drone’ at extremely low altitudes. He flew it through a tunnel with moving cars below. He came too close to a [University of Virginia] statue, railway tracks, and civilians,” stated verge.com.
The FAA is also making operations difficult for a non-profit search and rescue organization. Texas EquuSearch was founded by Tim Miller, whose daughter was kidnapped and murdered in 1984, said Schulman. Miller uses a drone, equipped with a less than 5-pound digital camera, to help others find missing loved ones, without charge.
The nonprofit has done “1,400 searches in 42 states and 8 foreign countries, including Sri Lanka after the tsunami … They have found 300 missing people alive,” said Schulman. It’s also helpful to find the remains of a loved one if only to provide answers to the family, bring closure, and a dignified funeral, Schulman said.
Schulman accuses the FAA of harassing EquuSearch. He mentioned one case in which the organization had to call off a search for a missing teenager because FAA called law enforcement and created too much friction to continue.
This humanitarian use of drones is not even a commercial use, noted Schulman.
Some question whether the FAA is the proper entity to be the enforcement authority for UAS. There is a big difference in the safety requirements between a commercial jet, flying altitude 35,000 feet, with “tons of metal and gallons of fuel,” and a 5-pound Styrofoam model aircraft flying below 400 feet, said Schulman. It even has authority to regulate a half-ounce model aircraft unlikely to harm anyone, which he brought to the news conference.
“Regardless of size, the responsibility to fly safely applies equally to manned and unmanned aircraft operations,” stated the FAA. The administrative law judge (ALJ) who presided over the Pirker case questioned the wisdom of defining aircraft to include model planes, extending FAA oversight to “paper airplanes and golf balls,” quoted Schulman.
In 1981, the FAA issued some guidelines, such as to not fly above 400 feet and to stay away from airports, said Schulman. He argues that these policies were voluntary and are not the same as regulations that must go through a rulemaking process, involving a notice in the Federal Register, and a period of public comment.
In 2007, the FAA issued a ban on the commercial use of model aircraft, which were classified as unmanned aircraft systems and could not be used for business. “They sent cease and desist letters to aerial photographers, particularly real estate agents,” said Schulman.
The FAA brought the stiff fine against Pirker because it said his model aircraft was operated for a business purpose.
Schulman made the case that because the FAA has not yet issued regulations on UAS, it lacks the authority to impose an aviation civil penalty against the operator of a model aircraft, and the judge agreed.