The enactment of new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations governing unmanned aircraft systems – or “drones” – has companies and consumers alike dreaming of the stuff of science fiction, but if the new regulations are any indication, the FAA is in no rush to see those dreams become reality. While the drone regulations permit use of drones for a variety of commercial purposes, the FAA declined to clear the way for package delivery by drone.
As part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA), Congress instructed the FAA to develop rules for the commercial use of drones. Pursuant to these instructions, the FAA issued a proposed rule in 2015 for commercial drone use. After being published for review on June 28, 2016, the final rule took effect on August 29, 2016.
The new rule is the first comprehensive federal regulation governing the routine commercial use of drones. According to the FAA, the commercial services made possible under the rule could generate more than $82 billion for the US economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years. Although companies have been able to operate drones for commercial purposes in recent years by requesting special permission from the FAA, the new rule will generally eliminate the need for such case-by-case approval from the FAA, unless the use is beyond the scope of the regulation.
The rule regulates commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds and establishes several key regulations:
- Drones must be operated by a pilot who is at least 16 years old and has passed a written test;
- Drones must be kept within pilots’ visual line of sight;
- Drones must be flown below 400 feet;
- Flights may only take place during daylight and during twilight if the drone has anti-collision lights;
- Drones may not fly directly over people; and
- Drones may not fly faster than 100 miles per hour.
Despite easing the regulatory burden on many forms of commercial drone use, the new rule is at least a partial disappointment for companies such as Amazon and Google that were pushing for approval of drone package delivery services. Requiring drones to remain within visual line of sight makes package delivery largely unfeasible. Nonetheless, the FAA notes that the new rule lifts the regulatory burden on a host of commercial activities, including crop monitoring and inspection; aerial photography; bridge and power line inspections; and various research and educational uses.
With the expected growth in commercial drone use, some industry and advocacy groups are warning that drones could pose unique privacy and safety concerns. Amusement park operators, for example, expressed concern during the rulemaking process that the use of drones over amusement parks and attractions could be difficult to control, while posing hazards to visitors. Theft of intellectual property is also a concern, with some agricultural groups warning that drones flown over private agricultural land could be used to photograph and steal proprietary agricultural information.
Noting that proposed regulations to address privacy concerns were “deemed beyond the scope” of the drone rulemaking, the FAA largely sidestepped the issue of privacy. Nonetheless, the agency noted that it “intends to continue addressing privacy concerns through engagement and collaboration with the public, stakeholders and other agencies.”
Although not a blank check for commercial interests, the FAA’s new rule on commercial drone use likely signals just the beginning of a long regulatory debate over the commercial use of unmanned aircraft, as well as the potential safety and privacy concerns that should, or should not, influence such a debate.