Drone regulations in the USA: will the FAA let drones off the leash?
A new draft bill intended to “catapult the United States into the 21st century” was introduced to the US senate in February of this year. The bipartisan law, called the 'Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act of 2023', was commended by drone organizations nationwide.
But what’s the problem with the current law? How did it develop? Let’s take a look.
Unmanned flight has a very long history, arguably more than 200 years if you count the hot air balloons of the Montgolfier brothers in France. But the period we’re interested in begins in the USA in 2005. That was when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave its first certificate of approval to UAVs to operate over domestic soil. In that case it was granted to the General Atomics MQ-9 Altair for searching for survivors of disasters, following Hurricane Katrina.
At this time, the only drone regulation on the books was not a regulation for drones at all, but for remote control airplanes. It was a one-page advisory, published in 1981, containing guidelines for the safe use of hobby craft. Interestingly, the guidelines were quite similar to the current rules regarding recreational use of drones: that model planes should only be flown within the pilot’s line of sight, away from populated areas, below 400 feet, and that airports should be notified if a plane was to be flown within 3 miles of the airfield.
1981 drone legislation in its entirety. Source: FAA.gov
The advisory was more of an informal agreement than an enforced law; the RC plane community had always behaved itself well, and their planes weren’t advanced enough to be a problem anyway. But since the turn of the 21st century, the playing field was changing drastically.
A new generation
RC planes were evolving. Developments like long-range data transfer, GPS positioning, advanced digital systems, and ever-lighter computers and digital cameras were allowing people to build a whole new generation of aerial vehicles. Small, easy-to-use quadcopters began to enter mass production for the first time and they were flying off the shelves (so to speak). Unfortunately, many of these new users didn’t pay much attention to the 1981 guidelines. There came a nationwide spate of arrests of drone operators operating their drones irresponsibly - using them for illegal purposes, flying over populated areas, and worse, endangering aircraft.
The honor system was no longer sufficient. The FAA concluded that these crimes were its jurisdiction, because this new generation of drones counted as planes. However, many of the cases had to be dismissed because the existing aircraft-specific regulations just didn’t apply.
So in 2007, the FAA released a ruling (FAA-2006-25714) making it clear: it was illegal to use drones for anything other than responsible, recreational flights. Commercial use was not allowed at all, and use in public service required a special airworthiness certificate.
Can’t fight the tide
Things had to change. Drone sales and flights were rising exponentially, drones were becoming ever more sophisticated, and big businesses like Walmart and Amazon were starting to become interested too. In 2012, Congress passed a law directing the FAA to develop rules specific to drones, and gave a deadline of 2015 for full integration.
This ruling - the 'Modernization Reform Act of 2012' - allowed commercial drone flights via a ‘Section 333 Exemption’. The exemptions weren’t easy to get, with approval taking up to six months, yet such was demand that the FAA gave out around more than 5,500 exemptions by 2016.
It was giving out just as many cease-and-desist letters though, including to people who uploaded drone videos to YouTube.
FAA headquarters, Washington D.C. Source: Matthew G. Bisanz
The 2015 deadline has long passed, but in 2016 the FAA published 'Part 107', which is the current regulatory framework for drones in the US. Significantly, the law defines drones as aircraft as opposed to models. As a result, any drone over 250g needs to be registered with the FAA and its license number stuck to the body, and must pilots pass a safety test. Furthermore, the FAA recently gave a deadline of September 2023 for compliance with a new requirement called Remote-ID, requiring all 250g+ drones to continuously identify themselves from the air via radio signal.
Amongst other things, Part 107 states that:
· Drones cannot be flown above 400 feet
· Drones cannot be flown at over 100 mph
· Drones cannot be flown beyond visual line of sight
· Drones must yield right of way to all other aircraft
· A pilot can only fly one drone at a time
Users need to acquire a ‘Part 107 Waiver’ for any drone operation that contravenes any of these rules - flying over a populated areas, for commercial purposes, multiple drones simultaneously, and flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).
The FAA has issued thousands of waivers since 2016, mostly for night flights, but also many for commercial use. BVLOS waivers are much, much harder to get. And this is the reason for the proposed bill.
Problems with getting approval
Although Part 107 did somewhat streamline the approval process (including a waiver application website called the DroneZone), the authors of the new law complain that the current system for approving drone flights beyond line of visual sight is insufficient. They say the criteria are unclear, the process difficult and unpredictable.
BVLOS flights are certainly very tightly controlled, and when an organization or company receives BVLOS approval, it’s big news. For example, in February 2023, the New York Power Authority received a BVLOS waiver for site inspections, under the conditions that all flights be planned and submitted, with drones not rising above 50 feet or straying 50 feet from inspected structures. Generally, waivers require the submission of extensive documentation detailing every single aspect of the proposed operation - risk assessments, flight plans, aircraft specifications, safety systems, site analysis, damage mitigation, etc.
But the authors of the bill recognize that drones aren’t going anywhere, and they claim that the FAA is preventing the US from competing effectively. Senator Warner, co-author, said: “Drones have the ability to transform so much of the way we do business…if we want the drones of tomorrow to be manufactured in the U.S. and not in China, we have to start working today to integrate them into our airspace.”
The draft bill proposes that the BVLOS flight approval process be streamlined. This is to be achieved by creating three weight categories. For light drones, the pilot will need to declare that they’ve completed a risk assessment; for medium-sized drones, they’ll need to apply for a certificate, and for large drones, full certification would be required, as with manned aircraft. Most importantly, the bill proposes that the FAA create a unit dedicated to assessing and approving these approvals.
The bill’s authors are correct in seeing the role that BVLOS flights stand to take in society, and that it's not an if, but a when.
Long-range BVLOS flight seen from High Lander Universal UTM
Drone sales in the US have been growing drastically year by year, while drone technology has evolved to such an extent that we already have drones capable of safely carrying passengers. Drone technology and drone operators are ready to take a much fuller role in society, and not just for business purposes. Drones provide vital support to first responders, they can give us more efficient, automated agriculture, a delivery infrastructure to replace roads, and even an entire new way to commute. All of these big goals rely on BVLOS capabilities.
Of course, it is vital that BVLOS flights can prove that they are safe, which requires full oversight at all times, failsafe systems in case of signal loss, mechanisms to prevent conflict with no-fly-zones and manned aircraft, and a way for drones to identify themselves from the air.
Luckily, this technology is already in place, thanks to operating systems that can safely manage and automate entire drone fleets with proven safety, and UTM systems that can provide the air traffic control to keep entire airspaces safe. For example, High Lander’s platforms provide all of these things and more, winning it many BVLOS approvals - including a recent, record-breaking BVLOS flight from an airport.
The drone sector will only be able to truly flourish when drones have their leashes removed. And when (not if) that happens, we all stand to benefit.
Electric Flying Cars, 1958. Credit: Jim Griffin, flickr