In 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation was mandated by Congress to establish regulations integrating remote controlled quadcopters and other sUAS (small unmanned aircraft systems) into the National Airspace System by September 30, 2015.
While the Federal Aviation Administration has been late in creating the regulations the Transportation Department tasked it with, those rules will determine the future of “drone” use, and they are on the horizon.
The legality of drone use in every area, including commercial use, news gathering purposes, and general drone piloting are affected by the FAA rules.
With that said, here is PINAC News’ 2015 Guide to “Drones.”
The Difference Between “Recreational” and “Commercial” Drones and How It Affects You
According to the FAA’s “Law Enforcement Guidance for Suspected Unauthorized UAS Operations” that the FAA sent out before last weekend’s Super Bowl, the FAA makes only one distinction between operators of quadcopters and other sUAS: whether they are being used for “hobby or recreational use” or not.
FAA approval is not required for sUAS pilots flying their quadcopters just for fun, but those pilots are still required to operate in a manner that is not “careless” or “reckless” according to the FAA. In addition to not interfering with manned aircraft, sUAS operators may be charged as “reckless” for violating other FAA restrictions, such as flying near “special security events” like the Super Bowl.
The FAA issued a 30 mile no fly zone around Sunday’s Super Bowl, calling it a “No Drone Zone.”
The FAA does not officially draw a line between recording news video for a media outlet and using drones in commerce.
What are the FAA Regulations On Commercial Drones?
As reported by The Blaze, the long-promised FAA regulations on commercial drones are starting to take shape – and that shape isn’t pretty.
The FAA is reportedly expected to forbid nighttime flights, restrict drones weighing under 55 pounds to flying below 400 feet, and mandate that drones be kept within sight of their operators. Even worse – the FAA is considering requiring a pilot’s license in order to fly a drone.
After winning a legal battle asserting the FAA’s right to police nearly everything in the sky, the FAA seems poised to create new regulations with the same heavy-handed approach it used previously. The FAA lost an earlier decision after fining quadcopter pilots without having created regulations.
The FAA “roadmap” for future regulations suggests some method of certification for pilots will be employed. While the FAA has been late on providing regulatory standards every step of the way, the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority has provided guidelines governing the use of drones in journalism and other commercial purposes for years.
The UK’s law, which the FAA is likely to try and mirror, requires commercial drone operators to take a written pilot’s test, a UAV-specific flying test, and restricts licensed pilots to flying within the line of sight and no more than 500 meters off the ground.
Because the FAA has yet to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – required before the FAA regulations can take effect – the FAA regulations will likely not take effect until 2017 because of the timelines involved in the regulatory process. In the meantime, the FAA will continue to pick and choose whom it authorizes to use drones in commerce.
Currently, the FAA grants “special permits” to companies seeking to fly drones over the U.S. through an expensive and burdensome process that has resulted in the issuance of a mere 114 special airworthiness certificates to 22 different models of civil aircraft as of August, only a fraction of which were for sUAS. Even Google decided against working with the FAA, as they announced the start of their delivery-drone testing would take place in Australia.
The businesses poised to capitalize on drone industry are encouraging Congress with
campaign donations statistics claiming that the U.S. loses more than $10 billion in potential economic benefits for every year the FAA ban on commercial drones remains in place.
The FAA holdup may be related to deciding how they can direct the distribution of that $10 billion pie through regulation.
Will the FAA Take Action Against Quadcopter Pilots Recording Video?
In January, the FAA and selected media partners announced a joint agreement to allow drones to be used for news gathering purposes.
The FAA is now cooperating with CNN and partnering with ten other corporate news organizations to “conduct controlled safety testing” of sUAS/UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) photojournalism.
A January news release announced that the FAA has reached an agreement with The Washington Post, NBCUniversal, and eight other companies to “test” newsgathering drones through a Virginia Tech facility, while CNN is working with the FAA through Georgia Tech.
“Our aim is to get beyond hobby-grade equipment and to establish what options are available and workable to produce high quality video journalism using various types of UAVs and camera setups,” said CNN Senior Vice President David Vigilante, undercutting the ongoing UAV photography done by citizen journalists across the U.S. “Our hope is that these efforts contribute to the development of a vibrant ecosystem where operators of various types and sizes can safely operate in the US airspace.”
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta also mentioned the need to “safely integrate unmanned newsgathering technology.”
While “public safety” is the official reason for the FAA’s decision to treat sUAS newsgathering as a commercial activity that requires regulation, there has never been a collision between a drone and a plane, despite the dearth of FAA regulations.
In addition, at least one quadcopter manufacturer has independently taken steps to ensure aircraft safety. DJI, the creator of the Phantom line of quadcopters, has installed a “No Fly Zones” feature in its latest quadcopters, ensuring that they will not be able to fly too close to airports.
Whether the FAA will actually take action against citizen journalists using quadcopters to gather news footage is unclear.
“We see drones being used every day covering the news and many news organizations will get drone video from many sources (but for the most part avoid using their own staff to shoot such things),” said Mickey Osterreicher, General Counsel of the National Press Photographers Association. “The FAA official position is that such use is unauthorized and could be subject to enforcement and fine but as yet the most they have done is to issue cease and desist letters.”
Don’t Forget State Law!
Regardless of whether or not the FAA wants to send you a cease and desist letter for recording video with your Phantom, individual U.S. states have their own laws on drone use. Check out whether drone laws have been passed in your state using this comprehensive map and the ACLU’s drones blog.