Proposed rules for drones envision routine commercial use (Update)

February 14, 2015 byJoan Lowy
Aeryon Scout UAV in flight.

Small drones could become a familiar sight across the nation's skies if the government adopts proposals that are largely favorable to commercial use of the remote-controlled aircraft.

An economic analysis by the Federal Aviation Administration envisions small drones—defined as those weighing 55 pounds or less—routinely taking off to perform aerial photography, crop monitoring and mapping, inspections of cell towers and bridges and many others commercial tasks.

The FAA says it plans to release the draft rules on Sunday. The rules have been in the works for years and were submitted to the White House budget office in October for review. They were revealed ahead of schedule Saturday when the economic analysis describing them was posted online by mistake.

The regulations would improve safety by using small, lightweight unmanned aircraft instead of heavier, manned aircraft that "pose a higher level of risk," the analysis said. It notes that between 2004 and 2012, there were 95 fatalities involving climbers working on cell and other towers.

If the rules would prevent only one fatality by using a small drone instead of a tower climber, the $9.2 million saved—the amount the government says is the economic value of a single life—would exceed the entire cost of the regulations to society, according to the document.

The analysis does not offer a total estimate on the annual economic benefit of regulations but says it would exceed $100 million a year. For example, about 45,000 annual bridge inspections could be conducted with small drones. Most bridge inspections currently employ hydraulic mobile cranes called "snoopers." The average cost of an inspection using a snooper is $3,250. Cable bridge inspections are even more expensive because they often require a 200-foot aerial lift.

The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade association, estimates that small, commercial drones will create 70,000 jobs with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion in the first three years after their integration into U.S. skies.

The analysis doesn't address jobs that might be displaced by drones, like some types of pilots.

The FAA currently bans all commercial drone flights except for those by a small number of companies that have been granted waivers. Congress has been leaning on the FAA to move faster on regulations that would allow a wide variety of companies to employ drones for everything from monitoring pipelines to delivering pizzas. Under a law passed in 2012, the FAA was to issue final regulations by September 2015, but that appears unlikely.

Even if the White House approves the FAA's proposal, the agency is still required to offer it for public comment. Tens of thousands of comments are anticipated, and it could take two to three years for the agency to address them before issuing final regulations.

The document indicates the agency has dropped its insistence that drone operators have the same licenses and medical certificates required for pilots of manned aircraft. Industry officials complained that obtaining a private pilot license or medical certificate would be unnecessarily burdensome.

Commercial operators would have to take an aerospace knowledge test administered by the FAA before they could receive a certificate granting permission to operate a drone. The agency estimates the cost to operators of obtaining certificate at about $300.

A private pilot license can cost thousands of dollars because it requires many hours of experience flying a plane.

Operators would have to keep drone flights below 500 feet in altitude, which is lower than most manned aircraft fly. That's 100 feet higher than the agency typically has approved in waivers to commercial operators.

But the draft rules would still prohibit drones from flying farther away than they can be seen by their operator, and nighttime flights would remain banned. The line-of-sight requirement would preclude delivery drones of the type envisioned by Amazon. Google is also experimenting with such drones.

Industry officials have chafed at both restrictions, saying they significantly reduce the usefulness of unmanned aircraft. The FAA's concern is that with no pilot on board, the operator on the ground is best able to prevent a collision with another aircraft by keep the drone in sight at all times.

Drone operators would also have to be checked out by the Transportation Safety Administration to determine whether they pose a security threat before they could receive an FAA operator certificate. There is no fee for the security check, but one might be applied in the future, the analysis said.

Last month, a small drone flew over the White House fence and crashed on the lawn. Although the operator later came forward saying the incident was an accident, the episode has raised concern that small drones might pose a security threat.

Agriculture is expected to become one of the first industries to embrace drones. Helicopter drones that are widely used for spraying crops in Japan would not fall under the FAA rules because they weigh significantly more than 55 pounds. But the rules would apply to small drones that monitor crops to better target watering or for mapping fields.

Explore further: Key decisions on drones likely from Congress

Related Stories

Key decisions on drones likely from Congress

December 28, 2014

The Obama administration is on the verge of proposing long-awaited rules for commercial drone operations in U.S. skies, but key decisions on how much access to grant drones are likely to come from Congress next year.

Lawsuits challenge US drone, model aircraft rules (Update)

August 22, 2014

Model aircraft hobbyists, research universities and commercial drone interests filed lawsuits Friday challenging a government directive that they say imposes tough new limits on the use of model aircraft and broadens the ...

US: Gov't aircraft regulations apply to drones (Update)

November 18, 2014

The U.S. government has the power to hold drone operators accountable when they operate the remote-control aircraft recklessly, a federal safety board ruled Tuesday in a setback to small drone operators chafing under Federal ...

Congress told US lags other nations on drones

December 10, 2014

Commercial drone flights are taking off in other countries while the U.S. lags behind in developing safety regulations that would permit unmanned aircraft operations by a wide array of industries, witnesses told a House panel ...

FAA, industry launch drone safety campaign

December 22, 2014

Alarmed by increasing encounters between small drones and manned aircraft, drone industry officials said Monday they are teaming up with the government and model aircraft hobbyists to launch a safety campaign.

Recommended for you

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...

How tree diversity regulates invading forest pests

March 25, 2019

A national-scale study of U.S. forests found strong relationships between the diversity of native tree species and the number of nonnative pests that pose economic and ecological threats to the nation's forests.

10 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Shootist
1 / 5 (1) Feb 14, 2015
If aspirin were invented today it would be illegal for use on humans.

Stop voting progressive leftist unless you enjoy having your basic liberties taken from you, at the point of a gun.
robweeve
4 / 5 (2) Feb 14, 2015
wonder how much insurance the pilots will have to carry or is it going to be "Oops, sorry."
ab3a
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 14, 2015
Robweeve, insurance is a significant cost to ANY aviation activity. It is a significant chunk of the price of an aircraft. It is a significant chunk of what people pay per flight hour of training.

In the litigious society of the US these days, don't expect cheap insurance. Also, don't expect to find a jury of "peers" capable of understanding the issues involved. UAV operations will have the same problems as the rest of aviation. Bet on it.
Manitou
2 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2015
The rules for line of sight and for night flight are both short-sighted (pun intended).

Drones with live cameras or with night vision systems obviate them.
CarolynKay
4 / 5 (3) Feb 15, 2015
"Stop voting progressive leftist unless you enjoy having your basic liberties taken from you, at the point of a gun."

Oh, I thought the right wingers were the ones with all the guns. And although they say the believe in freedom, they really don't. They want to force the rest of us to live under the rules THEY make. So this kind of accusation against liberals is really projection (http://makethemac...ified/). They accuse others of doing exactly what they are doing.

It would be as ridiculous to keep from having rules for drone traffic as it would be to have no rules for airplane or vehicular traffic. Everyone doing whatever they want to do would lead to a whole lotta unnecessary bloodshed.
CarolynKay
4 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2015
As to the impact of using drones, it sounds like it isn't just some pilots who will be replaced. What about the people trained to do tower and bridge inspections using the current technology? And how about the pizza delivery drivers?

I'm not against drones, I just think we need to be realistic in assessing their potential impact.
typicalguy
2 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2015
Yeahhhhh putting up drones in defined areas, like bridges, power lines, crops etc., where the opportunity to behead people is rather slim...

But what about important stuff - like pizza deliveries?

And home delivered prostitutes?


At this point I can't imagine a world where drones don't replace pizza delivery by humans. A drone is almost certainly cheaper than paying a delivery driver's wages year after year. You can imagine drone costs being cheaper as they're bought in bulk as well. We'll probably have it by 2025 or 2030. It's possible it could happen even sooner than that given the speed of change we're experiencing.
typicalguy
2 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2015
As to the impact of using drones, it sounds like it isn't just some pilots who will be replaced. What about the people trained to do tower and bridge inspections using the current technology? And how about the pizza delivery drivers?

I'm not against drones, I just think we need to be realistic in assessing their potential impact.

Drones cannot inspect towers and bridges but they can make it easier for humans to do so by giving them the ability to see every inch of the structure. These will actually be very useful for that. For delivery jobs, they're going to disappear over time. While I hate to see people losing their jobs, people aren't exactly doing that work to support a family. It's either side work for extra income, jobs while their in school, or a temporary situation while looking for other work. If we worried about every job then we wouldn't have invented power tools.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2015
"The FAA's concern is that with no pilot on board, the operator on the ground is best able to prevent a collision with another aircraft by keep the drone in sight at all times."

The best way to avoid collisions at present is with the proper instrumentation. Drones can be connected to the FAAs tracking systems and can be equipped with GPS and even radar. They have the potential to avoid collisions better than any line of sight observer on the ground.
rp142
4 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2015
Big news that the FAA is moving at all but the reality is that the regulations are still a few years away. Maybe they are hoping to learn from the experience of other countries that will have had their own regulations in place for some time.

Taking the approach of using "drones" for inspections is logical and low risk. For example, inspecting power transmission lines with a drone is much cheaper than a manned helicopter and just as effective.

Deliveries mean flying over built up areas, making them higher risk due to the number of people potentially exposed and the number of failure modes, is less practical and less likely to be allowed. It sounds great in theory but falls apart when you get into the details.

As a bit of a disclaimer, I'm in Australia where I build and fly drones as a hobby. There are regulations for commercial use here already and many uses are being allowed. The system is structured around risk management fundamentals.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.