On February 15, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a proposed rule to regulate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that seeks to bring the use of drones into the regulated environment of aviation. An aircraft qualifies as a UAS if it is less than 55 pounds, and travels less than 100 miles per hour. Most importantly, the proposed rule classifies drones as a separate class of aircraft, one that doesn’t require the same pilot training or credentialing as manned aircraft, and that only requires a UAS operator’s certificate.

Unfortunately, the proposed rule does much to quash the dreams of drone enthusiasts, including tech companies, with four key limitations. These require that operators must: remain within an unaided visual line-of-sight of the drone, not operate over people not involved with the mission, operate during the day, and maintain an altitude of less than 500 feet, among other specifications. Companies like Amazon, which has laid out plans hoping to capitalize on drone delivery, are particularly affected by these limitations. The “visual line-of-sight” limitation would prohibit operators from using drones where they could not see them. Thus, it would be impossible to employ drones to deliver packages from a central location or be used by power companies to repair telephone wires without sending out crews. Furthermore, operators are prohibited from operating more than one drone at a time, which will hamper efforts to get multiple machines to work together under a single operator.

These rules, however, are merely proposals, and only applicable to commercial drones. During the notice and comment period, there will be ample opportunity for authorities to weigh in on the correct shape that the rules should take and how they should be implemented. For example, Amazon has recently received an exemption to allow it to test out its delivery process, and present its results to the FAA. This could eventually lead to a loosening of the “visual line-of-sight” requirement, or grant exemptions to certain companies provided that they design their drones with certain safeguards.

Inherent in this rule is the idea that drones are here to stay, have wide ranging commercial applications, and that the development of drone technology depends on stable and effective regulation. By making this rule, the FAA is going far to enhance the technology by providing a groundwork for commercial application, and providing comfort to developers about how this technology is likely to be regulated by the federal government.

Phil Houten

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