Everyone Wants Federal Drone Rules, Whatever They May Be

image via flickr

The Federal Aviation Administration faces the difficult task of pleasing competing interests as it crafts regulations for unmanned aircraft systems. The rules will direct, and also possibly quelch, a burgeoning industry for decades to come.

No wonder FAA missed its congressionally-mandated deadline to release the proposal.

Even so, constituent groups are complaining that the FAA is stalling. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will discuss drone regulation at a Wednesday hearing.

But the groups are coming from different points of view. On the one hand, airline pilots worry about aircraft safety. On the other, drone manufacturers and the tech industry want regulations to foster, not stifle, the development of drone technology. As it stands, operators flying UAS for commercial purposes  must obtain waivers from the FAA on a case-by-case basis.

Essentially, the FAA must integrate a sky full of unmanned aircraft, operated both for business and pleasure, into a regulatory framework that presupposes human pilots. It must do so while keeping the skies safe and allowing the drone industry to further expand. Easy, right?

“The FAA is by its nature a risk-averse agency, but it is being forced to create rules for a new technology that is poised to disrupt many sectors,” said Daniel Castro, vice president of Washington-based tech think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, in an email.

The bill Congress passed to reauthorize the FAA for 2012 contained a section that directed the agency to safely integrate “civil unmanned aircraft systems” into national airspace as soon as possible, but no later than September 30 of this year. It didn’t happen.

The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an advocacy group promoting UAS, last week co-authored a letter with 28 organizations urging the agency to adopt formal rules for drones. The letter, however, did not delve deeper into what this diverse coalition wants the regulations to say. The signing groups, from drone makers to academic institutions, basically gave a blank check to the FAA, seeming to argue that good rules now are better than great rules later.. Otherwise manufacturers are at the mercy of an ad hoc bureaucracy.

“In the absence of regulations, American businesses and innovators are left sitting on the sidelines or operating under a restrictive exemption process,” the letter said.

According to Castro, any regulations are better than none, even if those rules are less favorable for drone usage. “It is hard to build a viable business if there is no certainty about what is allowed. Bad rules would at least allow some applications to be launched. So in some ways (almost) anything is better than [what] we have now,” he said.

It’s tough to attract investors in regulatory no man’s land. Who would buy a drone if you have no idea if in a few months whether you’ll be able to fly it?

There are too many case-by-case exemption requests to the FAA to leave the arena unregulated, the manufacturers say. “The increasing number of businesses applying for Section 333 exemptions is proof,” AUVSI President and CEO Brian Wynne said in a statement. “But this case-by-case approval process is not a long-term strategy for the many businesses wanting to fly.”

Section 333 of the 2012 FAA reauthorization allowed for UAS users to apply to the Secretary of Transportation for permission to fly their devices. Since this rule was put into effect, the FAA has received over 3,000 requests, and 1,700 of them were granted, according to AUVSI.

The industry should be careful what they wish for: Californians recently saw firsthand how new laws could threaten unmanned flight in its entirety. In late August, the California Senate passed a law that would have prohibited drone flight under 350 feet over private property without the landowner’s permission. The bill was aimed at protecting people’s privacy.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) recently vetoed the bill after it was adamantly opposed by various trade groups, which said the bill would have smothered innovation. The restrictions were so strict that they would have made it difficult for the casual drone enthusiast to fly a device anywhere. “This bill… could expose the occasional hobbyist and the FAA-approved commercial user alike to burdensome litigation,” Brown said in the message accompanying his veto.

The Consumer Electronics Association, a lobbying group representing tech companies in Washington, called the California measure, “an unnecessary, innovation-stifling and job-killing proposal.”

The Airline Pilots Association, the world’s largest airline pilot union, also wants rules applied to unmanned aircraft flight, but their concerns are more about the people who fly the manned aircrafts. They say drone rules must be consistent with rules for piloted aircraft.

“ALPA recognizes and supports beneficial application of [unmanned aircraft systems], but only if assurances are in place that the safety of the [National Airspace] is not jeopardized,” the group says on its Web site. “All rules developed to ensure the safe operation of UAS must be consistent with and compatible with those for other airspace users.”

Morning Consult