As Drone Rules Near, More Debate Looms

The FAA is poised to unveil rules permitting businesses to fly drones for limited uses.When the Federal Aviation Administration perhaps early this week unveils its first rules permitting businesses to fly drones for limited uses, the move is likely to spark broader demands for loosening restrictions on unmanned aircraft.

In recent days, agency officials have said the announcement—allowing drones weighing roughly 50 pounds to fly at low altitudes only in daylight and within sight of operators—is imminent. Some industry officials say the specifics could come as soon as Tuesday.

But according to manufacturers, trade associations and government drone experts, the FAA’s expected narrow scope and cautious approach likely won’t satisfy many segments of an industry seeking to grow exponentially faster than regulators can cope. The FAA’s final rule, they predict, will rev up debate about how to more quickly phase in rules covering more uses and types of unmanned aircraft.

Commercial drone operations are projected to attract millions of new users annually in the U.S. alone, with drone champions targeting uses ranging from inspecting buildings and bridges to spraying crops to searching for downed power lines.

Regulators emphasize the historic nature of what they are about to issue, with the FAA’s top drone official describing the impending rules as a bright “line in the sand.” But privately and increasingly publicly, agency leaders acknowledge they are playing catch-up with an industry that can roll out a new drone model in barely a few months.

The FAA’s move—which would allow restricted flights for drones of up to 50 pounds—could spark broader demand for loosening rules on unmanned aircraft.
The FAA’s move—which would allow restricted flights for drones of up to 50 pounds—could spark broader demand for loosening rules on unmanned aircraft. PHOTO:ANDREW MATTHEWS/ZUMA PRESS

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has said some observers liken the drone revolution to “the Wright Brothers moment of our time.” But Mr. Huerta also told an international safety conference last week that regulators no longer can afford to “act at the [traditional] speed of government.”

Future FAA rule-making efforts envision allowing certain drones to fly at night, hover over densely inhabited areas, or inspect train tracks while people on the ground remotely monitor progress through cameras or sensors.  But those applications all require technical and regulatory advances that might not be ready until the end of the decade. Still further out is revising collision-avoidance systems such as those airliners use today and installing them on the largest category of drones.

On some days, the FAA already receives roughly 4,000 registration applications for small drones, primarily from hobbyists. As an interim measure, the agency has issued more than 5,000 exemptions for small-drone commercial operations under 400 feet and within other strict limits.

The FAA is poised to issue the rules after assessing some 4,500 comments prompted by its initial proposals in early 2015. But most experts see the latest development as the start, rather than the culmination, of a broad, intense regulatory battle lasting many more years.

The world’s largest drone maker, SZ DJI Technology Co. of China, sees the new regulation as “long overdue” and “very welcome,” according to the company’s vice president of policy and legal affairs,Brendan Schulman, although he already is focusing on options that won’t be permitted under this announcement: night flying, cruising beyond a drone operator’s line of sight, and exempting operators of the smallest drones from needing a pilot’s certificate to fly their aircraft.

Airware, a company that creates an operating system for commercial drones and is incorporated as Unmanned Innovation Inc., tests beyond-line-of-sight operations, but has had to conduct these tests in other countries because of the lack of regulation in the U.S. “I would much rather do something here than fly a team of people to Kenya,” said Jesse Kallman, Airware’s government-affairs director.

Even with the new rules, companies that hope to use drones for more futuristic reasons, such as package delivery, will remain grounded for now. Inc., which hopes to set up what it calls Prime Air to offer home delivery of packages via drone, said in a 2015 letter to the FAA that the proposed rules “would not establish a regulatory framework to permit Prime Air operations.”

Consultant Michael Gallagher, an ex-FAA manager whose corporate clients are testing advanced drone solutions, tells former agency colleagues that “in this industry, you are being run over by the technology.” During a conference panel last week, he also said “I’m really concerned the agency has become irrelevant.”

Still, a segment of startups that serve smaller users in more limited settings say the regulations address their basic requirements and bring legitimacy to their burgeoning industry. Slantrange Inc., a San Diego-based company that makes software and sensors for agricultural drones, is already manufacturing more inventory in anticipation of a drone-buying boom after the rules are official, according to Chief Executive Mike Ritter.