Should domestic drone regs be loosened?

While there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for potential civilian and scientific uses of drones, a raft of federal regulations has slowed development, for now.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires any public agency seeking to operate unmanned aircraft systems to apply for a certificate of authorization. In addition, the operator must maintain visual contact with the aircraft, a restriction that works at cross-purposes to some of the more complex – and productive – drone applications.

"The biggest problem at the moment is the FAA regulations," said Edan Cain, a programmer for ESRI who donates his skills at programming drones to search-and-rescue teams. "When we are using [an unmanned aerial vehicle] we want to go beyond line of sight."

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Cain adds that the requirements for certification of aircraft also adds greatly to the cost of developing drones. "You have to get FAA certification for the air platform itself and that will take years," Cain sighed. "It's only the big players who are interested in that at the moment. You're talking about quite a lot of money."

Michael Hutt, U.S. Geological Survey UAS program manager, says that the paperwork involved in getting UAS projects approved is a challenge, but one that is getting easier to manage. 

"As we get more familiar with what the FAA wants and they get more familiar with us, it is becoming much more streamlined," he said. "It still takes a couple of months of effort, though, to actually get the special use permit, get the frequency allocations, get the review by USGS, send it over the FAA and get approval."

And Hutt would like to see some of the restrictions lifted for certain types of deployments. “I see the need for observers if you are in congested airspace," he said.  "But a lot of the places that we fly at [the Department of the Interior] are pretty remote. For all of the missions that we have flown, the closest aircraft we've seen was at 35,000 feet, and we're flying at 400 feet." The requirement to have line-of-sight observers, says Hutt, may actually be creating more risk.

Earlier this year, Congress passed a law that will open up the national airspace to UAVs for civilian, scientific and public safety uses. The law requires the FAA to have regulations in place by 2015.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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