FAA plan would bar delivery by drone, “micro drone” rule possible

The troubled skies over the U.S. drone industry cleared a bit on Sunday, as the Federal Aviation Administration proposed a new plan to speed up the integration of unmanned aircraft into the American economy — though the likes of Amazon and Google, which are planning delivery services, could be left in the cold.

In a news release and related press conference, the FAA proposed rules that would let companies operate drones under certain certain conditions that include:

  • Drones can only be flown in daylight hours and within the direct line of site of the operator
  • Operators must be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate
  • Drones must be under 55 pounds, can’t fly higher than 500 feet or faster than 100 mph, and can’t fly over people
  • Drones can’t allow “any object to be dropped” — which would seem to kibosh Amazon’s plans for an airborne delivery service

It’s important to note that these rules are just a proposal, and are subject to a 60-day public comment process, which means the rules wouldn’t go into effect until 2016 at the earliest.

Drone experts are pleased that the long-overdue rules are moving forward. Many in the industry, however, are likely to be frustrated by the proposed line-of-sight rule, which could preclude long distance flights, and restrict the use of the drone’s remote cameras for search-and-rescue and other operations.

One bright spot in the rules, though, is the FAA’s nod to so-called “micro drone” regulations of the sort proposed last summer by lawyer Brendan Schulman:

“The proposed rule also includes extensive discussion of the possibility of an additional, more flexible framework for “micro” UAS under 4.4 pounds,” said the news release, which also alluded to the creation of special drone “innovation zones.”

If the “micro drone” plan goes forward, it could open a window for the likes of Amazon and Google to use devices under 4.4 pounds to go forward with their drone delivery ambitions.

Meanwhile, the new announcement does not affect current policy on drone use by hobbyists, whose antics — including crashing their machines on the White House lawn and into a Yellowstone geyser — have made unmanned aircraft a high-profile issue.

As for commercial use, companies will for now continue to have to seek waivers from the FAA. Currently, only a handful of such waivers, which come with onerous restrictions, have been granted — even as other countries, like France (where the post office is testing delivery drones) and Canada, are supporting wave of new drone-based industries.

An FAA spokesperson said by phone that the odd timing of the release (on a Sunday morning of a long weekend) was related to a leak on Friday of an internal agency study that suggested drones could offer significant benefits to the U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, the White House also put out an executive order today to promote responsible drone use.

Drone on White House lawn leads to lockdown

A small drone landed on White House grounds late Sunday night, leading to emergency vehicles swarming the area, and the perimeter being placed on lockdown until 5:00 a.m., according to the AP. A White House spokesperson told the New York Times he did not have details about the size or make of the drone, but that the Secret Service is investigating.

The White House episode is the latest mishap involving drones, which are becoming ever more popular with average consumers. Other such mishaps include an arrest at the U.S. Open, and a ban on the devices at National Parks where tourists have harassed wildlife and crashed a device into a famous hot spring.

While Sunday’s incident posed no danger to the president, who is in India, it will provide more grist for the debate over how to regulate the ongoing proliferation of small camera-equipped unmanned aircraft.

As it stands, the FAA has been coming down hard on anyone who uses a drone for commercial purposes, such as real estate photography, but has largely left it up to local authorities to police amateur drone enthusiasts.

The result, according to Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz, is that “We now have the worst of both worlds: Hobbyists are not effectively regulated, creating potential safety issues, while commercial development is criminalized.”

While the federal agency was supposed to have new rules for drones in place by last year, it has repeatedly missed deadlines, and now reports suggest the rules may not be ready until 2017.

As I’ve argued in the past, the U.S. should take a page from countries like France and Canada, which have developed permitting systems to encourage commercial uses, and which are considering certification processes to ensure hobbyists use the devices safely.

Delivery by drone: French postal video shows it can be done

Amazon and Google may have some catching up to do. It turns out the mail service of France, La Poste, has already successfully field-tested a service that can fly a package to a remote area, drop it off and return home.

As the video below shows, the service dubbed Géodrone involves a small drone with six rotors that can deliver a 9-pound (4 kg) package up to 12 miles (20 km) away. A postal worker loads the package onto the drone, which then unloads it automatically at the recipient’s address and flies off:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jX6YCbn2xcM?rel=0]

News reports say from France say the test took place near the town of Pourrières, which is in the southern region of Provence. La Poste has not specified when the service will be in full swing, but suggested that it anticipates using Géodrone to provide service to residents in remote mountainous and maritime regions.

The Géodrone project represents another impressive achievement for France’s emerging unmanned aircraft industry. Earlier this year, drone enthusiasts in the Alps conducted a Star Wars-style pod race in a French forest with the permission of the local government. Meanwhile, a researcher in Holland has showed how an ambulance drone can deliver a defibrillator to a heart attack victim in under two minutes.

Such experiments stand in marked contrast to what is occurring in the United States, where a dysfunctional rule-making process at the Federal Aviation Administration has brought drone deployment to a virtual stand-still, even as American companies are clamoring to use them for business purposes. The U.S. approach also differs markedly from Canada, where authorities have issued hundreds of permits to use drones in everything from farming to real estate to TV production.

The FAA has claimed that go-slow approach is essential to ensure the safety of civilian airspace. Critics, however, have suggested the agency has been needlessly reactionary. One alternative proposed by drone lawyer Brendan Schulman is for the FAA to issue special “micro drone” regulations that would let qualified people use drones below 400 feet and away from airports.