The Regulatory Year in Review: A Look Back at 2017’s Biggest Stories and Developments in Drone Regulations
BY Zacc Dukowitz4 January 2018
When you look back at 2017, a whole lot has happened on the regulatory front here in the drone industry. So much, in fact, that it can be hard to keep track of all the developments and changes.
In this article we’re going to take a look at some of the top regulatory stories of the year, as well as places where we’ve made impressive progress—progress we might not have even thought possible a year ago.
Hobbyist Drone Registration
On the regulatory front, one of the biggest stories of 2017 centered around the requirement that hobbyist drone pilots register their drones.
Back in May, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in the Taylor court case that hobbyists no longer had to register their drones with the FAA. The decision was based on the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which states that the FAA “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft.”
This decision led to a big downturn in hobbyist registrations, as reflected by the data the FAA released toward the end of 2017.
But then just last month a new law passed by Congress reinstated the hobbyist drone registration requirement. All of this back and forth has left many hobbyists understandably confused about what exactly they’re supposed to do, and to many debates about whether the registration is a good thing, or even whether it should be more thorough than it currently is.
One thing is for sure—the registration requirement for drone hobbyists seems like it’s here to stay.
Federal vs. Local Authority
2017 saw mounting tensions between local and federal authorities around drone regulation. Here’s a breakdown of what happened.
Conflict Between Local and Federal Laws
In April, Bard’s Center for the Study of the Drone released a report about local and state drone laws that ban certain types of flying that the FAA has deemed legal. Since the FAA has primary jurisdiction over all airspace in the U.S., many of these laws aren’t technically legal—or there legality is on shaky ground, to say the least—but breaking them could still lead you to lots of legal hot water (not to mention possible fines and even jail time).
The tension between local and federal laws came to a head in the Newton court case, in which several parts of a city ordinance concerning drones in Newton, MA were struck down as being in direct conflict with the FAA’s pre-existing (and pre-eminent) regulations.
White House Federal-Local Pilot Programs
While the Newton case was reassuring to many, and made it seem like the FAA was now back on stronger legal standing—of importance to those of us who would like to avoid a future where there are different drone laws in every county, effectively making it impossible to be a solo drone service provider—this calm only lasted for a short period of time.
In October, the White House announced a new pilot program that would test sharing authority between federal and local governments. We have yet to see what this pilot program will bring in terms of findings or actual policy, but it may not bode well for those who would like to keep regulations simple.
On the other hand, advocates of the pilot program say that it will help provide a way forward that will appease local officials, and avoid more radical measures like simply delegating all airspace authority to local governments (as proposed in Diane Feinstein’s drone act).
UAS Facility Maps, and Instant Airspace Authorizations via LAANC
Some huge news this year for drone pilots was the release of instant airspace authorizations via LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability).
This new process is being rolled out airport by airport, and allows pilots to instantly request and receive airspace authorization through an app instead of submitting a form and waiting—sometimes up to 90 days or more—for approval.
Hand in hand with the release of LAANC is the FAA’s batched release of UAS facility maps for airspace throughout the U.S. These maps show the boundaries of controlled airspace throughout the U.S., and essentially provide a cheat sheet for airspace authorizations.
Using the maps, a drone pilot can simply see whether it’s even worth his or her time to seek airspace authorization in a given location—since the FAA refers to the maps in making their decision, the release of these maps effectively cuts out the middle man when it comes to knowing what you’re likely outcome will be for an airspace authorization request.
More Part 107 Waivers Issued to More Companies
2017 saw significant progress made by the FAA when it comes to issuing waivers for special types of flights otherwise prohibited by the Part 107 rules.
Although there were more waivers issued for all types of prohibited flights, special progress was made in a few key areas.
Flying Over People (107.39 Waivers)
Toward the end of 2017, we saw a wave of 107.39 waivers issued by the FAA (waivers that allow drone pilots to fly over people).
Not only were there a lot more of these waivers issued, but smaller companies such as AeroVista Innovations were able to secure them. Historically, only huge companies like CNN and FLIR had ever received a 107.39 waiver, so this development indicates that the doors are being opened for all comers, so long as they make a solid case for why they deserve the waiver.
Below is a screenshot of all of the 107.39 waivers issued from the FAA’s website (in case you didn’t know, all Part 107 waivers ever issued are public record, and you can search by type to see who has what). 9 out of 10 of the107.39 waivers listed below were issued in 2017, and half were issued in the last five months of the year—that’s pretty impressive progress.
Beyond Visual Line of Sight (107.31 Waivers)
2017 also saw a lot of progress made in BVLOS waivers, or 107.31 waivers, being issued.
In 2016, the FAA partnered with CNN, PrecisionHawk, and BNSF Railway through their Pathfinder Program to conduct research on BVLOS drone flights.
At the time, these three companies were the only ones given official permission to fly beyond line of sight, but in 2017 we saw an increase in 107.31 waivers, with eight new waivers issued to six different companies.
Here we also see a similar trend as the one described above, with smaller companies being allowed to fly in these previously restricted scenarios, indicating an opening of the door for these kinds operations for applicants with a good argument for their special use case.
Of course, these are just a handful of the regulatory stories from 2017.
2018 is sure to see a lot more change on the regulatory front, with even more Part 107 waivers issued, many more UAS Facility Maps released, LAANC available in more locations, and more developments on the federal-local authority sharing front.