Drone On: The Sky is the Limit If the FAA Will Get Out of the Way

Gretchen West. Foreign Affairs. Volume 94, Issue 3. May/Jun 2015.

In the beginning, drones were almost exclusively the province of militaries. At first little more than remote-controlled model planes used in the World War I era, military drones advanced steadily over the decades, eventually becoming sophisticated tools that could surveil battlefield enemies from the sky. Today, the terms “drone” and “unmanned aircraft system” denote a vehicle that navigates through the air from point A to point B and is either remotely controlled or flies autonomously. While they vary in size and shape, such vehicles all feature a communications link, intelligent software, sensors or cameras, a power source, and a method of mobility (usually propellers).

Inevitably, drone technology spilled out from the military and into other parts of the public sector. In the United States over the last decade, federal researchers turned to drones for monitoring weather and land, the Department of Homeland Security started relying on them to keep an eye on borders, and police adopted them for search-and-rescue missions. Then came everyday consumers, who took to parks on the weekend with their often homemade creations. Outside government, drones were mostly flown for fun, not profit.

Until recently, that is. In the last several years, a new group of actors has come to embrace drones: private companies. Inspired by the technological progress made in the military and in the massive hobby market, these newcomers have realized that in everything from farming to bridge inspection, drones offer a dramatic improvement over business as usual. The potential for the commercial use of drones is nearly limitless. But in the United States, the growing drone industry faces a major regulatory obstacle: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued overly restrictive rules that threaten to kill a promising new technology in the cradle.

Serious Business

As more and more actors have invested in drone research and development, the vehicles themselves have become cheaper, simpler, and safer. Perhaps even more exciting are the changes in software, which has advanced at lightning speed, getting smarter and more reliable by the day: now, for example, users can fly drones without any guidance and set up so-called geo-fences to fix boundaries at certain altitudes or around certain areas. The economics are now attractive enough that many industries are looking to drones to perform work traditionally done by humans-or never before done at all.

Many applications involve inspection; it’s far cheaper and safer to send a drone with a camera into a remote or dangerous place than to send a human. Oil and gas companies are using drones to monitor pipelines, oil rigs, and gas flares. Utility companies can use them to check electrical wires and towers. Engineers are beginning to use them to inspect bridges and buildings for damage and to survey land. In agriculture, meanwhile, drones offer a bird’s-eye view of farms, without the cost of aircraft or satellites. Farmers are starting to rely on drones to diagnose the health of their crops, assess damage after a storm or flood, herd livestock, and eradicate pests. In Australia and Japan, drones are fertilizing crops.

Drones could soon deliver light packages, too. Already, Amazon and Google have spent millions of dollars developing drone delivery programs, although much work remains to be done to make the services practical. Some entrepreneurs have tried out drones to deliver beer at concerts and champagne to hotel balconies. In Singapore, which has more service jobs than available workers, one restaurant chain is planning to replace waiters with drones. In remote parts of the world with little transportation infrastructure, drones could be used for humanitarian purposes, delivering medicine and other essentials. They could also play a role in protecting endangered species by tracking illegal poachers.

The list of potential uses goes on. Drones could help with mining by mapping sites and tracking equipment, and they could help with construction by measuring stockpiles of excavated soil and monitoring the progress of projects. In the real estate industry, entrepreneurs are using drones to photograph houses from previously unreachable vantage points. As for filmmaking, drones are a safer, cheaper, and less laborintensive alternative to renting a helicopter. Hollywood has rapidly embraced drones: parts of the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall were shot by drones in Istanbul, and the Motion Picture Association of America has helped get some of the first FAA approvals for the use of commercial drones in the United States. Likewise, news and sports broadcasters find the portability and affordability of drones particularly attractive. Earlier this year, cnn got FAA approval to explore their use in reporting.

The potential size of the commercial drone market is hard to pin down, in part because in the United States, the shaky regulatory environment is leading many companies to keep their plans private. Still, forecasts are upbeat. In 2014, the firm Lux Research estimated that by 2025, the global market for commercial drones will reach $1.7 billion, with drones used for agriculture generating $350 million in annual revenue and those used in the oil and gas industry generating $247 million. The drone industry is poised for greatness.

No-Fly Zone

But in the hotbed of drone research-the United States-the FAA is impeding the sector’s growth. Charged with overseeing U.S. airspace and the U.S. civil aviation industry, the FAA began asserting its regulatory authority over drones as they became more widespread. In the early years of this century, the FAA began allowing parts of government outside the military-federal, state, and local agencies; public universities; and police-to apply for permission to fly their own drones. But in the face of a new and poorly understood technology, the FAA refused to allow anyone to fly a drone for commercial purposes. Those who wished to do so had to go through a limited, expensive, and laborintensive approval process.

Then, in February 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which was the first FAA-related bill to include language about drones. The act gave the FAA deadlines for devising new rules on civil and commercial drones, setting an ultimate goal of safely integrating them into the country’s tightly overseen airspace by September 2015. Among the partial reforms, the bill required the FAA to make exceptions for first responders, create six test sites across the United States to experiment with ways to accommodate drone traffic, and publish a final rule for small drones.

Although the FAA missed most of the original deadlines for these objectives, it has now met most of the provisions-but not always in the most practical way. The provision for test sites amounted to an unfunded congressional mandate, and the sites are struggling to become operational. The exemption process for commercial drone operators, which the FAA announced in 2014 under Section 333 of the bill, requires applicants to jump through far too many hoops; for example, they must have a pilot’s license to operate drones and apply for a special certificate each time they do so. Not surprisingly, given its limited resources, the FAA has granted only 37 approvals as of this writing, and the backlog totals 536 applications.

But the bill did spur the FAA to finally release proposed rules for small commercial drones, which came out in February 2015. The industry found much in the draft to celebrate. The FAA proposed relaxing the requirement that drone operators have a pilot’s license; instead, they will need merely to get vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, pass a knowledge test, and obtain a special operator’s license. The drones themselves, meanwhile, will no longer have to meet cumbersome airworthiness standards (such as having a maintenance program and a manual); all one will need to do is register the drone with the FAA and conduct a simple safety inspection before every flight.

Some of the FAA’s proposals, however, are too restrictive. For example, a drone will not be allowed to fly beyond its operator’s line of sight. That is an extremely limiting constraint for farmers and surveyors trying to cover vast swaths of land, and it will make package delivery by drone impossible. What’s more, the FAA is not allowing so-called daisy-chaining, whereby users would transfer the line-of-sight requirement from one operator to another in order to cover a larger area. In traditional aircraft, pilots can fly under “instrument flight rules,” which allow them to rely on sensors and signals to navigate when visibility is limited. There is no reason a similar exemption cannot be applied to drones when they are flying beyond an operator’s line of sight.

Other restrictions are equally business-unfriendly. Even though technologies exist that allow operators to safely manage multiple drones at once, the FAA is planning to limit each user to flying just one drone at a time, which is particularly problematic for companies that wish to survey vast areas. And although the FAA has raised the altitude ceiling for drones from 400 feet (under the old guidelines) to 500 feet, many commercial operations, such as the inspection of tall buildings, require higher altitudes. In addition, the FAA’s rules would allow only daytime flights, even though drones can easily be equipped with lights that make them visible to the operator and others in the airspace at nighttime. And by banning flights over people who are “not directly involved in the operation,” the rules limit commercial drones to unpopulated areas. Vacating all employees is impractical at mines or construction sites, where employees are protected by hardhats anyway. The FAA still has a long way to go when it comes to adopting a sensible, risk-based approach to regulation.

Safe Skies

Other governments outside the United States have also had to grapple with the rise of drones. Like the United States, some countries, such as the Netherlands and South Africa, have opted for restrictive regulations. It hasn’t helped that the International Civil Aviation Organization, the body that issues global standards and practices, has failed to provide clear rules for small drones flying at low altitudes. Drone manufacturers, which often sell their products in many different countries, are paying the price for the lack of consistency.

But a number of countries have adopted sane drone regulations. Some, such as Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Spain, and the United Kingdom, are taking a risk-based approach, outlining different rules for different weight classes. Others have quickly and aggressively opened their skies to commercial drones. Canada has approved over 1,000 commercial operators, France has more than 1,200 of them, and Japan conducts more than 85 percent of its crop spraying by unmanned helicopter.

Not surprisingly, many U.S. companies, stymied by the FAA, have moved their drone operations overseas. Google has tested its delivery program in Australia; Amazon is researching its in the United Kingdom. With the FAA’s final rules at least a year away from being released, U.S. firms will likely continue to shift their work elsewhere. The result: the United States could well miss out on an economic windfall. In 2013, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the drone advocacy group for which I recently served as executive vice president, predicted that the economic impact of drones in the United States over a ten-year period would total $82 billion-but only once the proper regulation was in place.

The FAA should take its cues from countries with a risk-based approach to regulation. Small drones that weigh less than five pounds don’t pose the same threats to people, aircraft, and buildings that ones weighing 50 pounds do, and the rules should reflect that. Ultimately, it will take Congress to influence the FAA’s rules, along with the right amount of pressure from the various industry associations that have formed to lobby on behalf of drone use. No technology is 100 percent safe, of course, but that doesn’t mean an outright ban is in order. In the event that a negligent drone user does cause a mishap, society can deal with the fallout the way it already handles similar incidents: through civil and criminal law.

Some of the safety concerns can be addressed through technology. To prevent collisions, companies are now developing “sense and avoid” technology, whereby the drone automatically backs away from nearby objects. The start-up I work for now, DroneDeploy, has created software that performs periodic safety checks and monitors the airspace for obstacles. Researchers are also tinkering with programs to create a sort of air traffic control system for drones. NASA, working with the FAA and partners in the private sector, has spearheaded the Unmanned Traffic Management program, which is intended to create infrastructure that organizes commercial drone flights at low altitudes. Just as traditional aviation has used technology to improve safety, so is drone aviation.

Privacy is also a concern. After Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, privacy advocates started an anti-drone campaign, claiming that drones might spy on citizens. In Congress and state legislatures, politicians began proposing laws limiting the use of drones, primarily by law enforcement. Privacy is a legitimate issue when it comes to drones, but the conversation tends to miss the point. Many things can collect data-not just drones but also phones, manned aircraft, surveillance cameras, and so on-and so laws should focus on how the data are collected, used, and stored, not on the devices themselves.

Part of the problem goes back to drones’ military origins. Until recently, the media often accompanied stories about commercial drones with pictures of weaponized drones flying over Afghanistan. (Lately, however, the proliferation of small drones by such manufacturers as dji, 3D Robotics, and Parrot has shifted perceptions: drones are no longer just military machines; they are toys, too.) Some privacy groups have inaccurately alleged that commercial drones could hover for hours to conduct persistent surveillance, ignoring the fact that most drones used commercially today are lightweight vehicles with limited carrying capacity and only around 30 minutes of battery-powered flight time. And they have claimed that drones possess capabilities such as facial recognition and Gorgon Stare-a high-quality, wide-area surveillance video feed-even though those technologies are used primarily by the military and are of little interest to the private sector.

Of course, all technologies get smaller and cheaper over time, and businesses could someday start using those that concern privacy advocates. Again, however, the focus should be on the data, not the device. Laws already exist to protect privacy; people using drones to spy on neighbors, for example, could be prosecuted under peeping Tom laws.

Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines

In a remarkably short period of time, the private sector has discovered a multitude of uses for drones, ones that benefit businesses, their employees, and their customers. Real estate agents can showcase properties in ways that were never before possible. Farmers can detect and fix crop blights faster than ever before. Inspection companies can save lives by taking men and women off ladders.

All that’s left to do is clear the obstacles to this burgeoning industry. Private companies, for their part, need to aggressively raise awareness of drones’ potential, even demonstrating the technology directly to decision-makers, and take advantage of facilities such as the FAA’s test sites to prove drones’ reliability with hard data. Hobbyists, meanwhile, should fly safely and responsibly. And the FAA should abandon technophobia in favor of sensible rules. Once all that has been accomplished, commercial drones can at last take off.