Amid mounting concerns that the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) slow pace in developing a plan to open the skies to commercial drones has prevented the drone industry from taking off, the FAA on Sunday finally proposed a framework of regulations that would allow routine use of certain small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in today’s aviation system.
“By issuing draft regulations for the use of small unmanned aircraft systems, FAA has taken an important step towards the integration of UAS into civil airspace,” said Aerospace Industries Association President and CEO Marion C. Blakey. "The issuance of these proposed regulations is a key element of government and industry efforts to foster safe operations in both civil and military applications of remotely piloted aircraft while further encouraging research and development of UAS technologies. We believe this step will pave the way for additional service organizations and industries to explore expanded operations and use of UAS technologies.”
The proposal would pave the way for widespread drone use by expanding small UAS operations to include crop monitoring/inspection, research and development, educational/academic uses, power-line/pipeline inspection in hilly or mountainous terrain, antenna inspections, aiding certain rescue operations such as locating snow avalanche victims, bridge inspections, aerial photography and wildlife nesting area evaluations.
“Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace and this milestone allows federal regulations and the use of our national airspace to evolve to safely accommodate innovation,” said Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The proposal lays out a number of safety requirements for small UAS—drones weighing under 55 pounds—including restrictions allowing operation of drones only within the visual line-of-sight of the operator and during daylight-hours. In addition, small UAS cannot exceed a maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level or operate at airspeeds above 100 mph.
Operators of small UAS must be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating and pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.
The rules would not apply to model aircraft and the FAA is considering whether it should create separate category for small UAS weighing less than 4.4 pounds.
“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) cautioned, however, that the FAA’s proposed regulations for small UAS are merely a start. “These FAA rules are a solid first step but need a lot more refining,” he said in a statement.
The inclusion of the rule that drones must be flown within the operator’s line of sight has sparked controversy, particularly at Amazon.com. The company is working on project called Prime Air, which seeks to deliver packages to customers via small UAS.
"The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers,” Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global policy said in a statement. “We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need.”
Homeland Security Today previously reported that one of the most significant challenges to integration of UAS into national airspace is the potential that one could hit objects, such as a passenger plane. The FAA receives about 25 reports each month from pilots about UAS flying too close to their aircraft, sometimes even near major airports.
"We have all seen photos of the damage that can be cause to an airplane when a bird strikes in flight," Capt. Lee Moak of the Air Line Pilots Association Union earlier told Congress. "Unmanned aircraft can be much smaller or much larger than birds but they harbored added risk in that they carry batteries, motors and other hard metal components."
The public will be able to comment on the proposed regulations for 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register. In particular, the FAA is asking for comments on whether the rules should permit operations beyond line of sight, and if so, what the appropriate limits should be.
Meanwhile, the White House issued a presidential memorandum to promote the responsible use of UAS while strengthening privacy safeguards and ensuring full protection of civil liberties.
As the commercial drone market continues to push boundaries, the White House memorandum, together with the FAA’s proposed regulations, are an important step towards integrating commercial UAS into the national airspace.
“The aerospace industry will conduct a thorough review of the proposed regulations and provide FAA with feedback on their potential impact,” Blakey said. “Industry shares FAA’s concerns for the safety of both manned and unmanned aircraft. We anticipate that the exchange of views in the rulemaking process will result in a regulatory framework that will ensure safe UAS operations and expedite successful UAS integration into the national airspace.”