By Max Burke
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Sunday released proposed rules for small commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—also known as drones or unmanned aircraft vehicles. The rules would apply to non-recreational UAS under 55 pounds and would, among other things, limit flights to daylight hours and altitudes of less than 500 feet. A drone operator, with the help of visual observers, would need to maintain visual line of sight of the drone. And an operator would also “have to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate.” (See a summary of the proposed requirements here and the full proposal here.)
Currently, the FAA effectively bans commercial use of drones. Pursuant to section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA), the FAA authorizes such use only on a case-by-case basis; a limited number of companies have been given authorization since September 2014. The proposed rules—which were made pursuant to the FMRA—are supposed to be the next phase in expanding commercial drone use. The FAA lists a number of UAS activities that would be allowed under the proposed framework, including crop monitoring, research and development, power-line inspections, aerial photography, and aiding certain rescue operations. Anyone can submit comments on the proposed rules to the FAA for up to 60 days after the rules are published in the Federal Register. Unfortunately, promulgation of permanent rules is not expected until 2017, nearly two years after the deadline mandated by Congress in the FMRA.
While the new proposal is not as onerous as some businesses anticipated, don’t expect pizza delivery by drone any time soon. The line-of-sight requirement effectively kills that idea. Several news organizations received a statement from Paul Misener, vice president of global policy for Amazon.com, saying that the proposed rules would not allow the company to operate its drone delivery system (Prime Air) in the United States.
Although the FAA’s proposed rules may hamper growth of UAS use by businesses, the rules do not directly affect private recreational use of drones. States and local governments control that kind of activity. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 20 states have enacted laws that address UAS issues and many others are currently considering drone bills. The Washington State Legislature, for example, is now considering at least five UAS bills, two of which address private recreational use of drones. (See a summary of H.B. 1093 here.)
Privacy and safety are legislators and other government officials’ foremost concerns with drones. Indeed, also on Sunday, the White House released a Presidential Memorandum that intends to promote “the responsible use of this technology, [strengthen] privacy safeguards and [ensure] full protection of civil liberties.” The Administration seeks to accomplish these goals by imposing certain limits upon the use of UAS by federal agencies.