The FAA announced its proposed rules for small commercial drones (small unmanned aircraft/aerial systems “UAS”) in February 2015. See Small UAS NPRM (available at www.faa.gov). While the proposed rules are more lenient than many in the industry had anticipated, they are still stringent enough to prevent the use of UAS in many of the ways envisioned by some commercial entities.
Much of the proposed rule is dedicated to addressing the FAA’s concern that the UAS operator has the ability to see and avoid other aircraft. As the FAA reiterates in the proposed rule, the most basic responsibility of any aircraft operator is to avoid collisions with other aircraft. In fulfilling this fundamental responsibility, the FAA emphasizes the need for operators to exercise the basic flying technique of “see and avoid.” Due to a pilot’s ability to utilize peripheral vision while in the cockpit of a manned aircraft, the FAA believes that pilots of manned aircrafts are in a far better position to exercise see-and-avoid techniques than operators of unmanned aircraft using First Person View (FPV) or cameras. For this reason, the FAA’s proposed rule contains a Visual Line of Sight (“VLOS”) requirement, which requires UAS operators to maintain visual contact with the UAS at all times (though permitting the operator to use a second operator as a forward observer). The VLOS requirement presents a formidable obstacle to those wishing to utilize UAS’s commercially, and at least in the near future likely will restrict commercial UAS usage to activities such as photography, power line inspections, search and rescue, and crop monitoring.
As to those wishing to use commercial drones in a manner that will require their operation beyond the operator’s line of sight, such as delivering most products, the FAA clearly has recognized that the proposed rule is just the initial step on what it anticipates to be a long journey to complete UAS integration. Indeed, the FAA’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making leaves open the possibility for developing standards for operations beyond visual line-of-sight activities.
Recent comments from the leader of FAA’s Integration Office, Jim Williams, also provide a reason for optimism regarding the potential for beyond line of sight operations in the future. Speaking at the Drones, Data X Conference in Santa Cruz, California on May 1, 2015, Williams acknowledged that “we [the FAA] understand there is a lot of value in flying out of line of sight and that is one of the areas we are looking to get ahead rapidly in the next few years.” Williams did not provide a timeline on when such regulations may be changed but noted that, as sensor technology continues to evolve, drones will become safer and the need for a nearby pilot less necessary. Though he provided no timeline for the implementation of new regulations easing the VLOS requirement, Williams pointed out that as sensor technology continues to improve, and UAS become safer, the need for an operator to be nearby will be diminished. Williams explained his belief that sensor technology eventually will be able to permit an operator to see and avoid other aircraft, thus enabling beyond line of sight operation.