In a statement before the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on February 5, 2014, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta confirmed that the FAA “is working on a proposed rule to govern the use of a wide range of smaller UAS [unmanned aircraft systems], which, in accordance with the roadmap, we expect to issue for comment this year.” When finalized, this rule is expected to open U.S. airspace to commercial operations of small UAS. Currently, the FAA prohibits commercial use of UAS, except under an Experimental Airworthiness Certificate. The FAA also prohibits public UAS operations for which it has not issued a Certificate of Authorization or Waiver. Administrator Huerta appeared before the committee in connection with a hearing on the ongoing implementation of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Act), and as part of the committee’s preparations for the next FAA reauthorization act.

The proposed rule is one of the mandates the Act outlines for the FAA in regard to UAS operations. These mandates include:

  • Allowing local government and public safety agencies to operate UAS weighing 4.4 pounds or less
  • Simplifying the process for obtaining certificates of operation required for such functions
  • Determining whether public and private UAS can safely share the national airspace system
  • Issuing a five-year roadmap for introducing UAS into the national airspace system
  • Establishing a UAS integration program at six test sites
  • Implementing rules for operating smaller (less than 55 pounds) commercial UAS in the national airspace system

While Congress assigned time limits to each milestone, progress has been delayed.

Milestones Achieved to Date

While critics complain that the FAA has not acted quickly enough, it has made some progress on steps toward integrating drones into the national airspace as required under the Act. For example, the FAA has streamlined the COA application procedures for drone operations, developed an automated, web-based process for completing the application, issued certificates for drone operations to local government entities, selected six UAS testing and research sites and issued theRoadmap for Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace System. In accomplishing each of these milestones, the FAA emphasized the need to achieve UAS integration while protecting the safety and efficiency of the national airspace.

“Broad Benefits for Virtually All Americans”

During his testimony, Administrator Huerta acknowledged that new UAS technology has limitless applications, as well as “potential for broad benefits for virtually all Americans.” Due to the great potential for the use of drones in countless industries, the private sector has long awaited rules permitting private, commercial operations. UAS can be used to survey crops and infrastructure, including pipelines, power transmission lines, and roads and highways; assist with emergency management and disaster relief; bolster security efforts; deliver food and packages; reach remote areas for countless purposes, such as search and rescue; and provide communications and broadcasting capability. Until the FAA promulgates the necessary rules and procedures, however, private entities are prohibited from performing these operations. In fact, it was recently reported that the FAA halted beer delivery via drones by a Minnesota business to ice fisherman on frozen lakes in that state. The FAA has also ordered other private entities, including photography and real estate businesses, to cease their drone operations.

Privacy Concerns

Not everyone eagerly awaits the commercial application of drones. Some critics focus on privacy issues that they see arising through the increased use of UAS by both public and private entities. The FAA is aware of these privacy concerns. In November of last year, it published draft privacy requirements for the six test sites to obtain public input on privacy requirements for the sites. And, as Administrator Huerta testified before Congress, the FAA subsequently released a privacy policy that applies to the test sites, which requires operators to comply with all local, state and federal laws regarding privacy and civil liberties. Test site operators are also required to develop their own privacy policies and make them available to the public. Administrator Huerta also explained that numerous government agencies are collaborating to work on privacy issues arising through the use of UAS at the test sites. Administrator Huerta stated that one of the goals for both the government and industry is to ensure that the increased use of drones does not erode privacy rights.