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Drone entrepreneurs face “colossal mess” under planned FAA law

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The FAA’s long-awaited rules for drones are finally ready, and they spell bad news for the many businesses and organizations that had hoped the agency would give up its hard-line approach to unmanned aircraft.

The rules are intended to replace current ones that let hobbyists use drones (which can weigh as little as two pounds) but forbid commercial use — such as news photography or search-and-rescue — without a special waiver that the FAA rarely grants. The new rules will open the door to more business uses but, according to the Wall Street Journal, the planned law includes serious restrictions such as:

  • Requiring drone operators to have the same commercial pilots’ license as those required for airplanes
  • Applying the same rules to all drones under 55 pounds, including the popular Phantom models that weigh under 3 pounds
  • Allowing only daytime flights within direct sight of the operator, and that remain under 400 feet

The planned rules have been met with dismay by drone advocates such as the Small UAV Coalition, a lobby group that represents Google, Amazon and others.

“I feel like there’s a colossal mess coming … [The rules are] so divorced from the technology and the aspirations of this industry…that we’re going to see a loud rejection,” the group’s executive director, Michael Drobac, told the Journal.

The most contentious provision appears to be the one that would require drone operators to have a pilot’s license. This idea is unpopular not only because of the burden it imposes, but because operating a drone involves a different set of skills than flying an airplane.

The proposed rules, if they are imposed, will also represent a setback for a wide series of industries and organizations that want to broaden their use of unmanned aircraft.  These include not only real estate and commercial photographers, but also farmers and news outlets.

Many of these groups are suing the FAA over its existing ad hoc ban on commercial drone use, but suffered a setback last week when judges of the Department of Transportation board ruled that the FAA had broad authority to impose the rules. The issue is also before a federal court, but the case could be preempted when the new proposed rules go into effect.

Drone use is taking off in other countries, including Canada, where the government has issued hundreds of permits and startups are flourishing in a wide range of industries.

In the United States, some have suggested that a better course for the FAA would be to adopt a certification process, akin to a driver’s license, that would require drone operators to demonstrate basic safety and navigation skills. Others have suggested a special zone for unmanned aircraft below 700 feet, which is currently unregulated airspace under FAA rules, except for areas near airports.

9 Responses to “Drone entrepreneurs face “colossal mess” under planned FAA law”

  1. Nigel Brooks

    When I was a kid, my Father bought me a remote cotrolled aircraft. We went up to the local football field. With him at the controls, it took off, screamed across the sky and ploughed into a garden, narrowly missing a house. We didn’t know whether to run off, or go and retrieve it. And we HAD insurance! What’s to stop a drone operator doing a runner if he brings down an aircraft or hits a persons etc? As a commercial pilot and somebody who earns their living in the sky, I feel there should be some very tight control on these things. Just because the airspace below 700ft is uncontrolled doesn’t mean it’s unoccupied. I agree with the FAA.

    • J. Michael Sapienti

      Need controls.. can you imagine ISIS running these radio lite weight mini drones with some C 4 explosive on it? Talk about taking out specific people or targeted locations!

  2. The idea of having a pilot’s license from the FAA is not only a rather expensive “tax”, but it would also mean that you have to have a physical and could have your pilot’s license suspended if you undergo counseling or take antidepressants.

    Personally I’m waiting for the first drone personal injury lawsuit that involves a 7 figure demand.

    • O yeah, the grand Islamo scare. You act like the Islamic terrorist dont have hundreds of other options at their disposal to take down planes. An over regulated society is not a free society……

    • Gary Goodloff

      Regulations or not, this can still be a threat. It’s ridiculous that if I want to play with a 3 pound toy I need to get a pilot’s license. But if I get a pilot’s license, does that mean I can fly fpv?

  3. Kurt Milne

    “a special zone for unmanned aircraft below 700 feet, ” AKA space my family inhabits. Definitely need regs, license and require all operators to have insurance. Just like a car.

    • Chuck Shotton

      So, I can fly a kite under 700 feet with a camera on it. Do I need a license for that, too? How about a helium balloon on a string? What about wind-up $.99 balsa toys? Kurt, it might be news to you, but hobbyists have been operation radio controlled aircraft since the 1930’s. These knee-jerk bits of legislation are due to sensationalist media pandering and general ignorance, not because of some legitimate need. If it’s been OK to operate these sorts of devices for the last 85 years, why is it suddenly not OK? Why should it require licenses and insurance? (And FYI, hobbyists operating as members of the Academy of Model Aeronautics DO fly with a set of regulations and insurance as a condition of their membership. The hobby has admirably self-regulated for decades.)

      • Joe Smith

        @Chuck – There have been standards covering hobby use of aerial vehicles – see FAA advisory circular 91-57, released in 1981. What is different now is that we are at the cusp of a technological revolution which will reduce the cost and improve the performance of UAVs by multiple orders of magnitude. Last week a man in Jersey City, at a construction site, was killed by a tape measure that fell 400 feet and struck him on his head. It is not hard to see there should be some standards regarding 55 pound, battery operated objects, flying at 700 feet. It is one thing to debate how restrictive they should be, but I don’t see why it should be an unregulated free-for-all.