Geo Week News

February 18, 2015

Experts Are Happy With FAA's UAV Rules. Mostly.

airware drone

Airware UAVs. Source: MIT Technology Review

As SPAR reported yesterday (along with the rest of the English-speaking world), the FAA released a surprise rule proposal for the commercial use of small UAVs. At first, nearly every aspiring UAV operator was overjoyed to see the wheels of legislation turning, even if they are turning slowly. Now that the initial excitement has worn off, a few vocal critics have emerged.

In the cold light of the day after, what are people saying about the rules? What’s the consensus? I’ve culled the internet so you don’t have to, and gathered the highlights here.

Mapping industry is not a clear winner

The rules, which would regulate all UAVs under 55 pounds in exactly the same way, is a win for everyone, but some are bigger winners than others. On his Drone Analyst blog, Colin Snow goes in depth to explore which industries, like inspection, precision agriculture, and mapping/surveying stand to benefit most from the rules. (The post is well worth reading in full.)

Mapping, he says, is a winner and a loser. Why? Because the FAA’s rules still prohibit UAV operation beyond line of sight.

“The problem here,” he writes, “is many mapping projects are bigger than can be captured within visual line of sight.” As with precision agriculture, “operators could conduct many operations and stitch together larger maps, but this may be more costly than what can be currently conducted by manned aircraft.”

In other words, if you’re a mapping professional, don’t trade your airborne LiDAR rig in for a UAV just yet.

Surveying comes out on top

However, the Drone Analyst blog post continues to explain that surveyors should be very excited. “The door is wide open for drone operations like stockpile measurement and small open pit mine mapping. The door is also open for laser scanning, 3D imaging capture, and data processing that architectural engineering firms can consume.”

Expect a battle over line of sight restrictions

The FAA’s decision to institute line of sight restrictions will probably be argued, and then argued some more. If left in place, these restrictions would make it illegal to use UAVs for a number of useful applications, including inspection of power lines and offshore oil rigs, as well as measurement of large parcels of land in precision agriculture. (This Gizmodo article lays a couple of the more fantastical uses that won’t be possible anymore–for instance, say goodbye to overhead shots of football games.)

Michael E. Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition is quoted all over the internet coming out against this particular rule. In USA Today, for instance, he argues: “that means we really are not talking about unmanned aerial vehicles. We are talking about something that has to have a person. It defeats the whole purpose.”

Line of sight restrictions could still change before the rules are finalized

The FAA has explained that they do not believe the technology for using UAVs beyond line of sight is sufficiently advanced. For the most part, industry players disagree.

As Jesse Kallman, Director of Business Development and Regulatory Affairs for Airware explained on his company’s blog, there are already a number of ways to ensure safety beyond line of sight. “To ensure safe operations for BLOS [beyond line of sight]and in populated areas, we should look to advances in technology like contingency management, fail-safe mechanisms, and highly-reliable flight control software. The FAA states that the technology is not available, but indeed it is, and is being used safely in Europe today.”

We can expect the industry to point out this technology to the FAA during their public comment period. 

There’s another factor that may affect this rule: we can expect sense-and-avoid or artificial intelligence technology to improve soon. 

“One hundred percent is a big number and it’s difficult to rule out any possibility of anything going wrong,” Skydio CEO Adam Bry told the Washington Post. “I think what we can do is get to a point where the risks posed by drones are significantly and provably less than a lot of other risks we incur on a day-to-day basis from cars and manned aircraft.”

Lastly, there is reason to believe the FAA is simply being conservative at first and planning to loosen up their regulations later, as Senator Chuck Schumer has said. However, I don’t see this making many people happier, given that the FAA is already behind schedule and all the would-be UAV operators in America are champing at the bit to get started.

Drone delivery is pretty unlikely

Amazon has been planning for some time to begin delivering by UAV, a project that would be effectively shut down if the FAA were to pass the rules they’ve proposed. In fact, any delivery by UAV would be impossible.

In USA Today, Michael E. Drobac is quoted as doubting the possibility that Amazon will ever ship. “My view is that it could be that what they (FAA officials) are saying is, there is not going to be the opportunity for delivery.”

Until they’re finalized, the proposed rules don’t change the exemption process 

The rules are good news, but not unequivocal good news. There are still kinks to work out, as well as a lot of legislative process: the proposed rules are entering a 60-day comment period, which the FAA has to review before publishing the rules. At the earliest, the rules are going to come out next year, so get comfortable with the exemption process.

However, there is also reason to believe that the exemption process will improve. In an email to me, Airware’s Jesse Kallman said that “the FAA is still trying to improve the 333 process by shortening the length of time it takes to get approval and how the COA process works once approved.”

The exemption process remains unchanged for now. “But,” he reminded me, “based on the safety research done for the proposed rule, we may see some improvements on the COA side of the 333 process. There were no clear assurances given, but we are hopeful we will see an improved 333 process.”

The FAA wants to hear from you!

Or maybe it’s already inundated with comments. Either way, the Drone Center at Bard College has a handy list of questions the FAA wants the public to answer, including:

  • Should the FAA have different, less restrictive rules for drones that weigh less than 4.4 lbs? And if it should, are there any risks it should take into account?
  • A cornerstone of the proposed rules is the requirement that drone pilots maintain a direct line of sight with the drone at all times, but many have claimed that this rule would significantly restrict drone applications. So, is there any reason why this requirement should be lifted, and if so, how could it be lifted while keeping operations safe?
  • If you have ever operated a drone in a country that already has regulations, what was it like? Was it stricter, or more lenient than these rules?

The end of the article includes a handy guide to responding to the FAA.


Commercial UAV Expo, a new trade show and conference organized by SPAR 3D, will take place October 5-7, 2015 in Las Vegas. It focuses on the commercial UAV/UAS market in North America covering including Surveying & Mapping; Civil Engineering & Infrastructure;  Mining; Construction; Process, Power & Utilities; Precision Agriculture; and Law Enforcement, Security, Emergency Response.

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