Regulations Could Ground Drones Before Takeoff
(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)
Drones have a bit of an image problem.
Say “drone,” and many people think “CIA-operated killing machine in the skies.” They’re thinking of unmanned war machines like the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, armed with Hellfire missiles. On the other hand, to many people a drone is a toy, a little four-rotor radio-controlled helicopter, and it brings to mind silly hipsters taking “dronie” self-portrait videos.
Between those extremes, there’s a wide range of practical applications of drones to extend our vision to places where in-person eyesight would be dangerous, expensive, or tedious. Unfortunately, almost all of them appear to be illegal under current Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
Drones = planes?
The FAA’s position, as articulated in announcements such as this March posting, is clear: Drones are aircraft, and for commercial use an aircraft must be certified and under the control of a certified pilot. That’s even if the drone flies no higher than 400 feet, the ceiling of the uncontrolled altitude the FAA calls “Class G airspace.”
In some regions, like Washington, D.C., the FAA’s rules are even stricter: Drone flights — along with hang gliding, model rocketry, and most anything outside of government, airline, and some charter operations — are prohibited within a roughly 17-mile radius of Reagan National Airport.
At least you can still fly a kite. For now.
So when real-estate agents used a drone to post an aerial tour of the District’s Brookland neighborhood last month, the FAA could not have been amused. The blog post by agents Shemaya Klar and Jake Abbott (who didn’t answer emails requesting comment) has since disappeared.
At least they got nothing worse than a nasty letter. In another case, the FAA socked drone operator Raphael Pirker with a $10,000 fine after he posted a drone-filmed promotional video of the University of Virginia’s grounds in Charlottesville.
A National Transportation Safety Board administrative law judge looked at Pirker’s case and held in March that the FAA’s historically relaxed treatment of model aircraft left it no authority to prohibit commercial drone use. But the FAA promptly appealed, and until the full NTSB decides, the current policy stands.
That leaves things in a problematic state, even as time dwindles before the September 30, 2015, deadline for the FAA to liberalize drone restrictions that Congress established in a 2012 law. The deadlines in that “FAA Modernization and Reform Act” already seem shot, and some of its assumptions look dated, too.
Drone laws: Up in the air
Here are some of the issues the FAA will have to address when it finally gets around to writing its rules on drones:
Safety: The drone operators I’ve talked to make a point of not having their aircraft touch anything but a designated landing spot and avoiding buildings and groups of people on the way. “We try not to be a nuisance or do anything unsafe,” said Christopher Vo, a George Mason University robotics researcher and director of education for the DC Area Drone User Group. For example, he said, he turned down an opportunity to photograph a marathon via drone.