Unraveling the debate over sUAV regulation: Will the FAA be able to regulate safety?

By Bill McNeil

Between June and November 2014, pilots of passenger airlines and other aircraft reported 25 near-collisions with small drones across the United States, according to the November 26,2014 issue of The Washington Post. 

On July 4, 2014, a small quadcopter crashed into a crowd on a pier in Key West, Fla., cutting the arm and leg of a bystander.

In November 2014, a drone fell and struck a pedestrian in a parking lot near Bryant-Denny stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. during a University of Alabama football game.

Just this week, a small UAV made news by arriving on the White House property.

These, and incidents like them, have some clamoring for stricter commercial regulation of the US small unmanned air vehicle industry, yet the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to release clear guidelines over the use of sUAVs. Part of the reason may be that the majority of reported incidents, like those above, were the result of recreational consumer use of sUAVs, not commercial use. The impact that increased regulation would have on the commercial sUAV industry is as yet, unknown. However, with predictions by the Consumer Electronics Association that 2015 drone sales could exceed 2014 sales by more than 65%, many fear the problems will quickly get worse.

Among the groups lobbying the FAA for stricter commercial regulations are aerial surveyors, mapping companies and aerial photographers. Opponents to regulation note that these groups are biased by the fact that they stand to lose considerable business to less expensive commercial sUAV operators.

Yet the safety concerns may be valid. Although model airplane pilots have safely flown radio-controlled model aircraft for decades, they were traditionally skilled pilots flying fixed wing airplanes that required open spaces for runway landings and takeoffs. That’s not the case now. Most sUAVs are rotorcraft that can take off from the operator’s front yard, meaning novice pilots are now flying sUAVs in populated areas.

Most of the drones exhibited at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas have the ability to fly autonomously. DJI, the world leader in drone sales, has incorporated flight limitations around airports and around the home flight takeoff position. These are great first steps, but some believe manufacturers need to continue these initiatives and include even more safeguards.

Should there be a flight plan app that novices must complete before their first few flights? Should future flight controllers have integrated logs that keep track of flights and force beginners to successfully perform certain maneuvers before giving them full control? sUAV technology may not be developed enough for even these measures to ensure public safety. In a recent Wall Street Journal report, Dr. Nickolas Roy, robotics professor at MIT, said small consumer drones are not yet reliable and engineers are struggling to develop features that enable the devices to detect and avoid obstacles on their own.

To make things more confusing, other aspects of the technology are advancing at breakneck speed. Hardware and software features that were considered revolutionary last year are now standard on most sUAVs. The line between commercial and consumer sUAVs is evaporating and rapidly outpacing proposed legislation. It’s very possible that within a year, hobbyist and commercial operators will be flying the same equipment, and while the FAA is primarily focused on the safety of commercial flights, statistically speaking, most of the accidents are and will likely continue to be caused by recreational pilots who fall under less restrictive FAA guidelines.

On November 7, 2014, the FAA released documents that indicated that they may require commercial drone operators to have the same general qualifications as manned aircraft pilots, including mandated training and medical exams. If this comes to pass, it could have a chilling effect on the industry while still failing to address the bigger issue of consumer use. In effect, the FAA may require commercial sUAV operators to spend time and money to obtain a license that allows them to fly over exactly the same real estate, using exactly the same equipment, as an unlicensed recreational pilot.

Yet a one size fits all regulatory policy is also unlikely to work. Location and application need to be factored into the regulations. A commercial drone pilot flying over corn fields in rural Iowa shouldn’t have the same restrictions as an operator filming a large wedding in downtown Dallas, for example.  

These are exciting times for the GIS community. The data gathering capabilities of SUAVs could revolutionize our industry, but we may not see the benefits until comprehensive and reasonable regulations are in place that address these concerns.

We’d like to hear from our readers on this issue. How do you feel about the current regulatory debate? If the FAA implements stricter control over commercial SUAV use, how will your industry be affected? 

Published Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Written by Bill McNeil

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