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.

Super Bowl will have 30-mile “no drone zone”

Buzzing quarterback Tom Brady with an unmanned aircraft might sound like fun, but anyone who flies a drone remotely near the University of Phoenix stadium, where Super Bowl XLIX is taking place this Sunday, could face big, big trouble from the FAA.

On Wednesday, the country’s aviation regulator singled out drones in a fact sheet about Super Bowl–related aircraft activity, saying the popular consumer devices can’t be flown within a 30-mile radius of the stadium (my emphasis):

A second outer ring will encompass the airspace between 10 and 30 miles from the stadium. [..] All unmanned aircraft operations – also known as drones—are prohibited within the restricted areas. These include model aircraft operations, model rocketry and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). Anyone who operates an unmanned aircraft in the restricted area could face civil penalties or criminal charges.

The FAA rules feel a tad excessive given that a variety of conventional aircraft will be permitted to fly within that outer ring, and that devices like a 6-pound quadcopter can’t do much harm from 20 miles away.

Still, the agency is understandably feeling skittish after a drunk person crashed a drone on President Obama’s doorstep this week, and after drones in the last year have made unexpected and unwanted appearances at other football games and at the U.S. Open. The White House incident led the Administration to call on agencies to take increased action this week.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports this morning that drug dealers and would-be terrorists are turning to drones as potential delivery vehicles.

So, in this context, it’s hardly a surprise that the FAA is coming down hard on drones at the Super Bowl. In case anyone missed the point, the agency also put out this “No Drone Zone” video on YouTube.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jwPaFp8nMg?rel=0]

Drone pilot and FAA settle for $1,100 in key commercial use case

Raphael Pirker, who is probably the world’s most famous drone pilot, has reached a deal with the Federal Aviation Agency, which had sought to impose a $10,000 fine on Pirker for using an unmanned aircraft to take pictures for the University of Virginia in 2011.

Pirker issued a statement through his company, Team BlackSheep, that described the settlement, which will require Pirker to pay $1,100 but does not admit any regulatory violation, as “favorable”:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”We are pleased that the case ignited an important international conversation about the civilian use of drones, the appropriate level of governmental regulation concerning this new technology, and even spurred the regulators to open new paths to the approval of certain commercial drone operations.”[/blockquote]

The case, which began in 2013, quickly took on national significance as a test of the FAA’s power to regulate unmanned aircraft at a time when consumer drones are exploding in popularity among hobbyists and when a wide variety of industries are clamoring to use them.

The FAA chose to fine Pirker because he was using his drone for a commercial purpose (photography), which the agency claims is forbidden without a special waiver.

Pirker, however, argued that the FAA’s rules on commercial use are beyond the agency’s legal authority since the agency had failed to pass formal rules. A number of high profile media outlets, including the New York Times, filed legal briefs supporting Pirker before the National Transport Safety Board, claiming the ban violated their first amendment right for news gathering.

Pirker initially won a key ruling last year before an administrative law judge who agreed with his legal position, but the Board later overturned the ruling in a way that side-stepped the question of whether the FAA overstepped its authority.

Pirker’s lawyer Brendan Schulman, who specializes in drone law, has argued that the most appropriate way to regulate drones is through “micro-regulations” that would ensure safety, but not impose burdens like those required for plane or helicopter pilots.

Meanwhile, the FAA’s foot-dragging on drone rules, which some attribute to pressure from pilots, is a source of frustration to U.S. companies, which fear they will lose out to competitors in places like Canada and France, where commercial drone use is flourishing.

Here’s a copy of the settlement:

Pirker settlement

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Pilot pressure explains FAA’s indecisiveness on drones

Drone policy in the U.S. is a mess: the Federal Aviation Administration is currently grounding commercial use of unmanned aircraft while letting any amateur imbecile — like this guy — fly freely. Meanwhile, the agency keeps missing deadlines to propose a plan for integrating drones into civilian skies.

The situation is a source of frustration to researchers, photographers and companies, which have been stuck twiddling their thumbs even as other countries leap ahead in developing new industries tied to unmanned aircraft. But if it’s any consolation, there’s now an explanation for the FAA’s arbitrary approach.

Wall Street Journal report suggests that the FAA is dragging its feet on drone rules large part due to pressure from commercial pilots whose job could be at risk from commercial competition:

Aerial surveyors, photographers and moviemaking pilots are increasingly losing business to robots that often can do their jobs faster, cheaper and better. That competition, paired with concerns about midair collisions with drones, has made commercial pilots some of the fiercest opponents to unmanned aircraft.

The Journal account also points to why, in the handful of cases where the FAA has granted an exemption to the ban on commercial drone use, it has imposed onerous conditions:

In many of those exemptions, the Air Line Pilots Association, the biggest U.S. pilots union, and the National Agricultural Aviation Association, a trade group for crop dusters, helped persuade the FAA to place tight restrictions on the drone flights, including requiring operators to have pilot licenses and to keep the devices within eyeshot.

To be fair, there are legitimate safety concerns associated with unmanned aircraft. But the FAA’s current approach, which gives free reign to hobbyists while stifling commercial opportunities, does nothing to address these.

The smarter way to go about this, according to experts I’ve cited before, is for the agency to create buffer zones in which drones can operate at low-altitudes and away from airports. This could involve designating new zone fly-zones to go with the existing ones shown on this FAA map (I’ve added the arrows that point to Class G space which is unregulated):

FAA Airspace

Meanwhile, the FAA could also follow the lead of drone-friendly France or that of Canada, where the federal aviation agency has been issuing thousands of permits to businesses that are incorporating drones into everything from real estate to farm surveillance to TV filming.

Instead, the U.S. appears stuck in the worst of all worlds when it comes to drones:

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.