The State of Drone Regulations: A Look at the Future19 June 2017
Right now the drone industry, and drone regulations, are at an inflection point here in the United States.
On the one hand, we have productive partnerships taking place between the FAA and private companies in the form of the Pathfinder Program’s initiatives and the LAANC, as well as NASA’s partnerships with companies to create a viable Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system. Over 220 drone pilots are receiving licenses every single day on average, and drone applications are growing like crazy across various sectors, from construction to real estate to agriculture, and much more.
The regulations we have in place work much better than the ones we had a year ago (think 333 exemptions vs. Part 107—there’s just no comparison). And those things that are still slow and clunky, like the process to request a waiver or airspace authorization, are being improved, with real, concrete progress being made.
But on the other hand—and this is why we are at inflection point—we have bills like Senator Feinstein’s Drone Federalism Act being proposed, which would put drone regulations in the hands of individual states, coupled with the findings of a recent study from Bard College’s Center for the Drone, which found several state laws that would jail you for federally permissible flights.
In addition, President Trump recently proposed privatizing the Air Traffic Control system, which could impact FAA partnerships with private companies working on UTMs for the ATC, but could also fast track the process for making drone deliveries and automating airspace authorizations.
Finally, the FAA reauthorization bill is up for a vote in September, which is crucial to determining whether the FAA will continue at all (though surely it will, in some form—but the vote is sure to stir up some loud voices in both pro- and anti-drone factions, as well as other arguments about the ATC and related topics).
In fact, the last 30 days have seen such a flurry of activity around the FAA and drone regulations that Christopher Korody of the Drone Business Center recently wrote an in-depth article called 7 Forces Transforming the FAA and the UAV Industry about the particular moment in which we find ourselves, and how all of this might shape the future of drone regulations.
Let’s take a closer look.
The Future We’d Like to See
Last week we wrote about the progress the FAA has made this year in its partnerships with private companies, through both the Pathfinder Program and the newly formed Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system.
One of the goals of the LAANC is the automation of granting airspace authorization to commercial drone operators seeking to fly in controlled airspace.
The recent release of airspace authorization maps represents a significant step toward achieving this goal, since UAV pilots can now use these maps to get immediate insight into the criteria that will be used when determining their authorization request. The implementation of this automation is seen as a precursor to a UTM system that NASA is developing, with plans to hand it to the FAA by 2019.
In addition, the FAA has been working for years through its Pathfinder Program on researching scenarios where flights can be made that are currently prohibited under Part 107. Recently we’ve seen the FAA approve some Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BLVOS) flights, as well as flights over people.
None of these permissions were made on a permanent basis (as they have been in some other countries, like Denmark and Switzerland) but the fact that they’re being granted at all represents a step forward.
Given all of the above, we’d love to see a regulatory future in the U.S. where UAV pilots can automatically apply for and get airspace authorization; in which drones flights in controlled airspace are managed by UTMs, keeping skies safe for passengers on airplanes; and in which the process to obtain waivers for BVLOS, flying over people, and night flights is automated, or at least streamlined.
These regulatory improvements would enable commercial pilots to run their operations predictably, knowing when and where they can expect to fly. People would feel safer about the freedom commercial pilots have to operate in controlled airspace and in situations that are currently prohibited, because UTMs would ensure safe operation near airports, and avoid the nightmare scenario of a rogue drone taking down an airplane (maliciously or accidentally).
The Other Side of the Coin
Government programs currently in place make the future detailed above possible to imagine, but there have been a lot of developments recently that make it seem like things could change, and suddenly.
In one scenario, Feinstein’s Drone Federalism Act passes, and we see a regression to what FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has called a patchwork system for regulations. In this scenario each state, and even each city or county, has its own individual UAV regulations, making it almost impossible for commercial operators to know how to be compliant, and potentially killing the possibility of being an individual commercial operator entirely.
There are a number of other developments that have occurred recently, which could lead to drastic (and potentially negative) changes in the UAV regulatory scene:
- The outcome of John Taylor’s lawsuit was that hobbyists no longer have to register their drones. This could lead to openings for new regulations to be pushed forward, or could lead to more reckless flying (which could in turn lead to new, anti-drone laws).
- The 2017 FAA Reauthorization Bill could present some unexpected wrinkles, since privatizing the ATC may be at odds with reauthorizing the FAA. The bill will be up for a vote in September, which is right around the corner.
- Privatization of the ATC could fast track the creation of a UTM for the entire country, and lead to a better regulatory scene for drones—or it could lead to high fees and low outputs, with even more delays.
- The proposed Drone Security Bill would give the government the ability to track, seize control of, and destroy any UAV it determines may pose a security threat. This bill would certainly limit, or encroach upon, the FAA’s current authority, especially because security threats could be interpreted as extending to flights over the natural resources held by private companies.
The reality is that this is a time full of change and uncertainty when it comes to the FAA and drone regulations, and it’s hard to say what will happen next.
When you read the list of bulleted items above, it looks like the FAA may have its authority chipped away from all sides.
But none of this is likely to happen right away. Even pushing forward the privatization of the ATC will not get rid of the need for the FAA, and any changes that happen seem like they will most likely be slow and incremental.