Drones: Current Regulations and Future Research

On October 22, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a proposal recommending the enforcement of current aircraft registration laws on Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), commonly known as drones. The proposal comes at a time when the public, with its growing acceptance of drones, is pressuring the FAA to relax its regulations. While drones are considered “aircraft” according to Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, statutory requirements related to their registration have not been enforced. The proliferation of recreational drone ownership and a growing trend of “unauthorized and unsafe use” by their operators, however, have raised concerns over safety and whether such registration should be implemented.

The FAA proposal invited individuals and entities to provide information regarding the best method of implementing a registration standard. Such standards, the FAA argues, would provide an important function of allowing drones to be tracked to their owners. The FAA’s recommendation comes as a product of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (MRA), which granted authorization for the Department of Transportation to partner with other government entities and industry stakeholders to develop a plan for the integration of UAS in the national airspace by 2015. The current landscape regarding drone use is outlined below.

Current Regulations: Recreational, Public, & Commercial

 Recreational Use:

 Small UAS (sUAS) intended for recreational use are regarded as model aircraft. As per Section 366 of the MRA, recreational use of a sUAS is defined as that which is exclusively for “personal interests and enjoyment.” While there are no restrictive rules regarding recreational use of sUAS, the FAA has set safety guidelines that it encourages operators to follow. Such guidelines currently include:

  • Flying no higher than 400 feet and remaining clear of surrounding obstacles.
  • Keeping the sUAS within the operator’s unassisted field of vision.
  • Remaining clear of manned aircraft operations.
  • Keeping at least 5 miles away from an airport, unless airport and control tower are contacted.
  • Keeping away from people and stadiums.
  • Not flying an aircraft that weighs more than 55 pounds.
  • Refraining from being careless or reckless with the sUAS.

Public Entities:

 Public entities such as public universities, law enforcement, fire departments, and other government agencies may apply for a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA in order to use sUAS as a “public aircraft” for “government functions,” as defined by 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(41) and § 40125. “Public aircraft” are defined as any aircraft used by the United States government. “Government functions” may include those pertaining to national defense, intelligence missions, firefighting, law enforcement, and biological or geological resource management. In such cases, use of the sUAS is granted for specific purposes within a “defined block of airspace.”

Commercial Use:

 Under Section 333 of the MRA, drones cannot be used for commercial purposes without a permit from the FAA. Commercial use is defined as that which provides “professional” services or contract services. These permits are granted on a case-by-case basis for “low-risk” operations and are few in number when compared to the high volume of outstanding requests. Corporations looking to use drones on a larger scale have so far only been granted Special Airworthiness Certificates – Experimental Category (SAC-EC). These Certificates allow restricted flights of UAS for research purposes during daylight hours. within the line-of-sight of the pilot and no higher than 400 feet. Drone operators acting in this capacity must also pass a medical evaluation and have, at minimum, a private pilot’s license.

A Push for Fewer Regulations

One of the largest proponents of relaxed drone regulations is Amazon, which was awarded a patent for its drone delivery program in May 2015. The online retail company has been developing drone delivery systems for years, but has only recently been granted an SAC-EC by the FAA for testing. The benefits of such a program include cheaper and faster delivery to the customer, as well as reduced costs for the company. But before Amazon can realize these benefits, the company must first address governmental concern regarding drone usage, including harm to persons or property damage from crashes, theft or redirection of the drone due to hacking, and the potential for an air-to-air collision with manned aircraft.

To counter some of these concerns, Amazon has suggested that all future drone systems, regardless of their manufacturer or purpose, should have five capabilities: a sophisticated GPS system that will track other drones in the area; a reliable Internet connection; online flight planning that would communicate the drone’s path; communications equipment; and a sensor-based system that would allow the drone to avoid impacting with other objects. Furthermore, Amazon has proposed a pocket of air exclusively for drones. Specifically, the company has recommended a section of air 200 feet in height, with a 100-foot no-fly zone directly above, to be reserved for its drone system and other similar systems.

Amazon has urged the FAA to implement this regulatory scheme, but only time will tell whether Amazon’s recommendations are put into effect. The increased prevalence of recreational drones coupled with a push by corporations for fewer restrictions has prompted the FAA to inquire into the viability of such proposals. To that end, the FAA is testing drone systems in an initiative termed Focus Area Pathfinders. Several of these tests, conducted by Precision Hawk with approval from the FAA, are scheduled for November. The tests aim to determine whether drone systems are capable of autonomous, safe operation among other conventional aircraft.

Other corporations have also reached out to the FAA to participate in the Pathfinder initiative, including CNN and BNSF Railroad; CNN will explore the potential for UAS for newsgathering in urban populations, and BNSF Railroad will test for “command-and-control” challenges. These partnerships serve as indicators for the future, as the FAA continues to develop and expand regulations. Whether it does so through Amazon’s proposed methods or through some other means remains yet to be seen.