Geo Week News

December 9, 2014

FAA Regulation Panic!


Image source: Pro Video Coalition

The quick answer: Sensationalism.

The long answer: About two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published a story indicating that the FAA is due to announce some new commercial UAV rules, and this story ignited a firestorm of media coverage. According to the Journal, these rules would require that a commercial UAV pilot obtain a license similar to a traditional pilot’s license, they would require that UAVs used for commercial purposes remain always within the pilot’s line of sight, and they would lump together all UAVs under 55 pounds. This last bit means that you couldn’t skirt the rules by flying a small fixed wing or multi-rotor, for instance–the same rules would apply to it as a much heavier rig.

What’s the problem with the story? For one, it’s largely speculative. The article quotes no direct sources, but refers only to some vague sources familiar with the rule-making process. 

The second problem was pointed out to me by a well-known Geospatial Business Development Professional and UAV Advocate. As he explained to me, the likely source for the rules that are being reported lately is the FAA’s publication on “What can I do with my Model Aircraft?”. Careful readers will note that the news stories do not often cite this fact. They will also note that this FAA website was last edited on August 14th. This information is not new.

If this information is not new, why is it dominating the news again?
One reason is that the FAA’s 2015 deadline is still looming and the topic of UAV regulation generates clicks.

Another reason is explained in an informative blog post by Jeff Foster at Pro Video Coalition. (Full disclosure: PVC is SPAR’s sister publication, but don’t let that stop you from digging in.) In this post, he explains that the media frenzy has revitalized by the “one [UAV] case that all eyes have been watching over the past few years.” 

This paragraph from his piece is a pretty good summary: “In 2011, Raphael Pirker of Team Blacksheep (AKA “Trappy”), a Swiss citizen, was contracted by a publicity firm under contract with the University of Virginia to take aerial videos over and around the campus with his remote controlled powered fixed-wing Styrofoam glider (a Ritewing Zephyr). A couple years later, after viewing his flight online, the FAA levied a $10,000 fine claiming he had operated an UAS for commercial purposes, which the FAA does not permit under current regulations for UAVs/UAS in U.S. airspace. They also contended that his flight was reckless and unsafe and many would agree. Trappy is known to fly crazy stunts and dangerously close to people and objects, as you can see in his many videos online.”

Pirker appealed the fine, claiming that the FAA doesn’t have authority over “model aircrafts,” and a judge with the National Transportation Safety Board granted his motion. In his ruling, the judge indicated that the aircraft is more like a model aircraft than any type of aircraft that falls under the FAA’s jurisdiction. As a result, the model aircraft rules should apply.

However (and this is why we’re hearing so much about regulations lately), the FAA appealed this decision and it was overturned. 

Now Pirker has to pay his fine. On top of that, according to the NTSB, the legal definition of an aircraft is now basically any device used for flight in the air–including drones. This means that the FAA “may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a UAS or model aircraft in a careless or reckless manner.”

As Foster reminds us, the NTSB did not mention anything about commercial use of drones. 

Taken together, this means the FAA can enforce their rules for the piloting of unmanned vehicles, but the rules for commercial use are unclear. This is not an ideal situation for commercial UAV operators. 

Where would these proposed commercial UAV rules leave us?
Obviously, we can’t predict what the actual regulations will be. If the regulations are imposed as reported, though, what does that mean for those of us in the survey/aerial mapping business?

According to my source within the industry, the vertical restriction of staying under 400’ is not necessarily a problem. One of the biggest benefits of UAV’s is to fly at low altitude for higher-resolution data capture. However, the line of sight restrictions would certainly limit the usefulness of the UAV. “When you think about doing corridor collection, he said, “for transportation, utilities, or oil and gas, being restricted to ‘line of sight’ would create serious inefficiencies.” 

What’s the point of flying a pipeline with a UAV if you have to shadow it with another aircraft, truck or ATV keeping it in your line of sight? 

This rule would be doubly frustrating, since UAVs already include technologies like auto pilot, pre-programmed missions, geo-fencing (to restrict area of operation), live tracking, and first person viewing (FPV), which can mitigate the line of sight issues. If collision avoidance were developed before the FAA rules are issued (and it seems possible), it would seem to make the line of sight regulation totally moot. 

As for the licenses, the UAV advocate told me that they’re a good idea only if the UAV is being flown in the same airspace as private or commercial aircraft. In that instance, he suggests a “modified license requiring the operator to understand how to talk to other pilots or a control tower.  Requiring a UAV operator to spend the time and expense of learning to fly a plane seems overly extreme.”

The best scenario, he told me, would be “to require a license to operate, and a system identifier.  Combine these with a hardware requirement from the manufacturers that would allow for real time-tracking anytime the UAV is in operation. Then make the real time tracking publicly available through a website, similar to what is being done with aircraft in flight aware.”

When will we see these rules?  Jesse Kallman, Global Business Development and Regulatory Affairs with Airware, notes on the company’s blog that he was originally heartened by the idea of the FAA releasing any rules at all for commercial UAV use. But the agency still has yet to issue its notice of proposed rule making (NPRM), which will have to go to the public for comments, and return to the FAA for review all before any final rules are announced. If everything goes according to plan (a big IF), this puts the announcement in 2016, more than a year away at the very least.

How useful would these rules be? Kallman mentions they’re not going to be very useful at all unless they are adapted to the reality of UAV use. He writes that any rules should take into account factors as varying as “weight, speed, operating area, flight control system design quality and capability, emergency functionality, and operator training.” Knowing these factors, rule makers could “create a risk profile and standards are set on that risk profile. If you can ensure your overall operation is safe, it should be allowed.”

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