In August the FAA broadly liberalized the rules governing the operation of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS). The changes are fundamental ones, representing an about-face for the agency, which has abruptly dropped both the requirements for small drones to be certificated and for their operators to be licensed pilots. How will these monumental changes affect pilots and the safety of flight, not to mention the nascent light drone industry? Why has the FAA essentially deregulated an entire segment?
With the explosion in the numbers of drones and flyers of drones over the past few years, the Feds have been growing uneasy. They were worried that one of the hundreds of thousands of small drones that get produced and delivered into the novice hands of new drone operators would hit an airliner and cause a catastrophe. It hasn’t happened yet, though it remains a possibility. Whether drones pose as big a risk to airliners as the mainstream media and the FAA suggest is debatable. Skeptics, including the largest model flying organization in the world, the Academy of Model Aeronautics, are dubious. They have questioned if some of the close calls between airliners and drones (reported on by the media and discussed by the FAA, too) had actually happened at all.
Still, doing nothing in the face of such perceived risk was more than the FAA could take, so it eventually did what it does: It regulated. Now, the Federal Aviation Administration is well known for its attention to detail (many would say an attention to detail bordering on the obsessive). This manifests itself in an insistence that the companies and individuals that it regulates comply to the letter of the law. When they don’t comply, the agency does the other thing it’s known for: It enforces the law, handing down suspensions, revocations, fines and even criminal complaints in rare cases to make the point that its rules matter.
So it was no surprise that the FAA, when tasked with creating interim regs to oversee the drone world, did what it always had done before. It created layers of certification requirements, it defined the operators’ obligations and limitations, and it created new operating regulations just for light drones. It was, in essence, a whole new layer of regulations for a new segment of aviation.
This was business as usual on Independence Avenue in D.C. The missions of the FAA are, few would argue, absolutely critical to the health and welfare of the busiest and most vital airspace system the world has ever known. They consist of several overarching missions. In broadest terms, the FAA needs to make sure that the aircraft in the system are safe, that the people piloting those aircraft are qualified and that the aircraft occupying the airspace (at least the part the FAA controls) don’t run into each other. And the FAA not only makes the rules, it enforces them, too, for pilots, manufacturers, mechanics, operators and a dozen more groups, and it does so zealously, sometimes to the concern of civil libertarians, who wonder if pilots get due process and a fair shake with the Feds.
So when the FAA published its new rules in August, it seemed as though the agency had swapped its iron fist for a velvet glove. Why this sudden change in approach for an agency known for its inflexibility?
The FAA is so set in its ways—many would argue that it needs to be—that in recent years Congress has taken to passing laws intended to do nothing but make the FAA do something it seemed reluctant to do. This was the case with the rule that raised the maximum age for airline pilots to 65. It was also the case for the recently enacted Third-Class Medical reform. The point is, the FAA has a certain entrenched way of doing business, and it takes a lot—sometimes the might of Congress—to get it to pivot.
Which is why the move to liberalize light drone flying, a massive pivot, is so surprising. The FAA had an interim drone plan that seemed to fit its historic action profile. That plan, enacted late last year, called for the mandatory registration of all drones and required pilot certification for all UAS operators, even for pilots who only flew lightweight models. The registration requirement remains intact, but the FAA has sharply changed directions on nearly every other facet of the rules. Why did the FAA, with the enactment of the latest, liberalized regs, suddenly abandon its path?
Fear In Numbers
Perhaps the reason behind the change is no great mystery after all. Not to brag, but we predicted in an editorial months ago that the agency would fail miserably at regulating the drone segment. Our point was not that the agency is bad at regulating, but that the drone segment was growing so fast that it would soon be too big for the agency to simply tack on as a side gig.
Many in manned aviation (a term we’re likely to hear more and more in coming years) would like to think that drones will remain a sidelight, but the truth is, it’s hard to imagine a scenario other than the UAS segment dwarfing that of manned aviation, and soon.
Early this year the number of drones registered in the United States surpassed that of registered aircraft. That figure, 325,000 registered drones, showed drones edging past registered manned aircraft by about 5,000 units. The numbers, the FAA admitted at the time, were probably far greater than that, as a single drone registration covered all the drones that someone owns. That number, again according to the FAA, is 1.5 drones per person. So by early this year, the number of registered drones, the vast majority of them light drones, numbered around 500,000. The FAA will continue its successful registration program, which requires owners of light drones for both hobby and commercial use to register those craft. When applying for that registration, operators provide the agency with their personal data, so that if a drone were to be involved in a close call or collision, the FAA would be better able to track down the person flying the drone.
Personal and light drone use is sure to continue its exponential growth, and commercial drone operations are likely to grow even faster over the next decade as companies of nearly every description take advantage of the capabilities that small UAS offer. These light machines are cheap to acquire and to operate, and more and more they have autonomous capabilities, like obstacle control, that keep them out of harm’s way. Before long they’ll be doing old manned aviation jobs, like pipeline patrol, more safely and cost effectively. And they’ll certainly soon be doing brand-new jobs, some of which could never have been done before, including ones that innovators haven’t even dreamt of yet.
The FAA understands the potential for growth. While just a couple of years ago the agency predicted we could have as many as 30,000 drones filling the skies by 2020, it now says that this prediction was off by a factor of more than 200. Its current prediction is for 7 million drones to be operational by 2020. Online retailer Amazon, one of the largest companies in the world, has gone all in on drones, which it intends to use for deliveries. If Amazon does turn to drones for its deliveries, that prediction of 7 million drones by 2020 might prove far too small.
A Risky Plan?
So to survive the onslaught, the FAA has decided to selectively deregulate the light side of the segment, an approach that makes sense but that also has risks.
This is not the first time the FAA has tried such a revolutionary approach. Back in 1982, in response to the meteoric rise of the ultralight movement, the FAA adopted FAR Part 103, which deregulated tiny one-seat airplanes, referring to them in the regulation as Aerial Recreational Vehicles (ARVs). The experiment was an unmitigated disaster. The new industry took off, but with no oversight and no plan to see that pilots were properly trained, carnage ensued. It took a decade for the mess to get straightened out and for the FAA to come up with a training plan for ultralight pilots. Today, the segment is largely self-managed and stable, with an accident rate that, while still higher than other segments of aviation, is far better than before.
The FAA’s current plan to let drone pilots police themselves is different from the agency’s ultralight adventure of the early 1980s in several key ways.
First, the danger to the operator is very small, compared to the risks posed to ultralight operators of the early 1980s.
Second, the risk to the public at large from drones is just as small. While a drone could conceivably kill a bystander, compared to many other common public activities, like motorcycle riding or boating, drone flying is low risk. That said, the rule does require operators to avoid overflying innocent bystanders, though the rule is vaguely worded and will likely be difficult for pilots to interpret and for the FAA to enforce.
A Risk To Your License?
As you’ll see in our breakdown of the rules a couple of pages back, a person can get certification to fly drones by being a current manned aircraft pilot.
While the FAA hasn’t enumerated the endorsement actions it might take against an aircraft pilot for errors they make while flying a drone, it’s safe to say that there’s likely some risk of the FAA suspending or revoking a pilot’s aircraft operating certificate for an error made while flying a drone. Again, it’s important for pilots who fly drones to educate themselves, fly conservatively and take the safest path lest the FAA call us for a talk.
In terms of the public’s safety, the biggest threat drones pose is in a UAS potentially taking down an airliner. Some critics contend we need to take the risk more seriously. This includes Chesley Sullenberger, who guided the US Airways Airbus he was flying to a dramatic no-engine landing on the Hudson River when both engines lost power after ingesting a flock of Canada geese.
But even if we concede that at some point a small drone is going to hit an airliner, how likely is it that the drone will cause the plane to crash? It took not one goose but a flock of geese to turn Sullenberger’s Airbus into a glider. Moreover, even a rigorous registration and pilot certification effort by the FAA would not render moot the threat that small drones pose to airliners. The FAA is simply making a calculated bet that regulation-light in this case will work.
A Tough Calculus
The benefits to society, and especially to commerce, could well be driving the strategy, and the FAA doesn’t deny the importance of that factor. In its press release unveiling the new rules, the FAA said that …“According to industry estimates, the rule could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.” Those are big numbers, and the value to society in terms of economic activity and jobs created will doubtless be great. Some are comparing the rise of drone flight to the creation in the 1950s in the United States of the interstate highway system and the economic boon it created and continues to feed. While no one likes to discuss the economics of safety considerations, it’s a real part of the calculus that undergirds the creation of new regulations for emerging technologies.
Safety Of Manned Flight
The new rules behind the operation of small drones seek to separate these light flyers from manned traffic by keeping them low. The maximum altitude a small drone can be operated without some kind of exemption from the FAA is 400 feet. And they are still restricted from flying around airports.
Again, while there remains a risk to manned airplanes from small drones, the FAA has apparently concluded that the risk is small enough to be managed and that its efforts to tightly regulate the segment were not making it safer.
Privacy is a subject that the FAA dipped its toe into in its press release, but is not addressed in the new rule. Opinion polls a few years back showed that the general public was more concerned about the invasion of their privacy by drones than by any physical threat the machines posed. The agency says that it will depend on online education and established best practices to meet the public’s privacy concerns.
It’s a bold new world of aviation coming at us, and as pilots we have perspective on it that non-pilots could never have. We also have concerns, liabilities and risk that non-pilots who fly drones just don’t. Those of us who decide to fly drones need to understand the risks, educate ourselves and fly as professionally on the ground as when we’re in the air.
What The New Rules Say About Light Drones And Who Can Fly Them
- The new rule applies to drones that weigh less than 55 pounds and that are flown for commercial purposes.
- The rule does not apply to non-commercial (hobbiest) operations. They will continue to be conducted under rules that will now be contained in FAR Part 101.
- Commercial operators can apply for an exemption to the rules and the FAA will grant it if it determines the operation can still be conducted safely.
- All operations are line of sight.
- The operator of the light commercial drone must be at least 16 years old and have a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating, or be supervised by someone with a certificate.
- The regulations require pilots to keep an unmanned aircraft within visual line of sight. Operations are allowed during daylight and during twilight if the drone has anti-collision lights.
- To get a remote pilot certificate, an individual must pass a knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.
- Operators can also qualify to fly if they have a pilot’s license. In that case, they must have a current biennial flight review and have taken a UAS online training course provided by the FAA.
- The FAA says that the TSA will conduct a security background check of all remote pilot applications before the FAA will issue the certificate.
- There is no requirement for the drone to meet current FAA airworthiness standards or aircraft certification. Airworthiness is confirmed each fight by the operator conducting a preflight visual and operational check to see if safety systems are working properly.
- Pilots are required to check that the communications link between the controller and the drone is functioning properly.
- Drones are restricted to operating only in authorized airspace below 400 feet. Pilots need to be aware of NOTAMS or other restrictions to flight.