FAA: Drone Regulations Are Vital to Protecting Safety, and You'll Get Them in a Decade or So


Death from above! Typically a few feet above…
Credit: Don McCullough / photo on flickr

Don't go holding your breath waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to determine a comprehensible, graspable policy on commercial drone use. Despite wading into the previously unregulated unmanned aircraft industry in 2007 and forbidding commercial drone use until federal rules could be put into place, it's just about to start making those rules (seven years later) and is not expecting to finish the job until well after 2020.

From Forbes contributor, John Goglia:

Although small unmanned aircraft rulemaking—applicable to those under 55 pounds—is expected to begin by the end of this year, the entire rulemaking process for significant rules, according to [Jim] Williams [head of FAA's unmanned aircraft office], takes 7 to 10 years.  And, he stated, that this rulemaking would certainly be considered significant.  So it seems that no rules are likely to be finalized until the end of 2021 at the earliest and possibly not until 2024.  This is much later than many in the commercial UAV community that I have spoken with expected and hoped for.

Until there are final rules, Mr. Williams stated that approval of commercial drone operations would only be done on a case-by-case basis.  As of now, only commercial operations in the Arctic have been approved. But Mr. Williams was hopeful that a process authorized in accordance with Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 would allow a faster introduction of commercial operations, at least in some specific categories, such as precision agriculture (fertilizer and pesticide application), closed-set filming, refinery, pipeline and power line inspection. 

In April, Steve Chapman highlighted the terrible way the FAA has been throwing its weight around to block private use of drones, even for surveillance assistance in rescue missions. Why would anybody trust the FAA to use reasonable discretion given the authority to approve drone applications on a case-by-case basis?

Williams also claimed that there's been one near-miss of US Airways flight nearly colliding with a drone over Florida. The CNN report, though, fails to explain whether the drone was actually a private commercial drone in the first place. And it's particularly telling that he throws out such scares at the same time as telling people it will be maybe another 10 years before these rules exist. The FAA has little claim to power over drones anyway. A federal court has already ruled the FAA overreached by fining a businessman for using a drone to take video for a commercial. The FAA is appealing the decision and is, of course, continuing to act as though it has this authority in the meantime.

(Hat tip to Mark Sletten)