The Future of Commercial Drone Use in the United States

February 27, 2015

Sometimes Amazon Prime’s two day shipping just isn’t fast enough. Have you ever ordered something from the Internet, and wished that it would just appear at your doorstep? Well, that day could happen sooner than you think. Recently the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) proposed rules to regulate drone use. So how does drone use affect your ability to get your online orders faster? Well, theoretically you would place your order, classify the order with a rush status, the order would be quickly processed at a warehouse, and then a drone would take your order and drop it off at your house. Potentially, this whole process could happen in a hour or two, and is already happening (in limited capacity) in China and Germany.
Until the proposed regulations are passed, commercial drone use is mostly illegal in the United States. In order to operate a commercial drone, the operator must apply, and be granted an exception from the FAA, under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. As of this writing 33 exceptions have been granted. A large chuck of these exceptions has been granted for ‘closed set filming’ or ‘aerial filming’. Those who have been granted exceptions are subject to stringent regulation. For example when granted an exception the person “must have a regular pilot’s license, pass an aviation medical check, be assisted by a spotter, request permission two days in advance and limit flights to less than 35 mph and below 300 feet.” Under the proposed rules drone operators would have to acquire a special certificate, and follow restrictions on flying. These restrictions include “keeping the drone within sight, and avoiding hazards like restricted airspace, people, airports and other planes.” Additionally, there would be size restrictions on the drones. For example, drones would need to weigh less than 55 pounds. If these regulations are passed drones would be able to fly up to 100 mph.
While these regulations are steps in a positive direction for those hoping to use drones in the United States, there are still huge limitations. Companies have expressed desires to deliver packages (like the Amazon example above), inspect oil pipelines, inspect crops and inspect electrical towers with drones, but the current proposed regulations would not allow these uses. Specifically the rule that says that the drone pilot must maintain visual contact with the drone would be especially limiting. As would the weight requirement for companies who want to use drones to deliver packages. The FAA acknowledges that visual contact is a potential limitation and suggests that

drone flights could still be “possible with a secondary spotter working with the pilot of the drone.”

Additionally, the proposed rules are still subject to public comment before they can be implemented, meaning that they will not be law for at least a year.
The two biggest concerns behind drone use are safety and privacy (remember last month when a drone landed on the White House lawn?)Arguably these reasons are why the United States has been slow to enact drone regulations, while other countries have jumped on the opportunity. From a safety standpoint, there is concern about small drones interfering with commercial airliners. In 2014 there were over 190 incidents between commercial airliners and drones reported, some resulting in near collisions. From a privacy standpoint, advocates are concerned that the proposed rules do not do enough to limit the use of drones by law enforcement agencies for surveillance purposes. As of now federal agencies are allowed to use drones for ‘any authorized purpose.’
Never fear, even though commercial drone use is generally illegal (for now), you can still legally fly your recreational drone (just be sure to check your local laws). There are, however, some recommended safety guidelines. These guidelines include not flying near manned aircraft, or near sensitive infrastructure (like power lines). Additionally, it is recommended that if you are flying within five miles of an airport that you contact the air traffic control tower. More information can be found at Know before you fly is a campaign between the FAA, manufactures and distributors to inform people about drone use before they take to the skies.