Drone entrepreneurs face “colossal mess” under planned FAA law

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.