In a significant shift, the FAA is also proposing to end its general prohibition on flying drones over people, relying on research and regulations concerning the risks of people getting hit by debris from missile and rocket launches to help make the case.
As part of a trove of documents published Wednesday, the FAA also said it is considering new limits on how and where drones can fly and what payloads they can carry, given security concerns, and they’ve asked the industry and public for advice on how far officials should go.
Administration boosters and industry advocates promise that the highly sophisticated small aircraft will spur far-reaching economic and social benefits, from food and medicine delivery to more eco-friendly application of fertilizer. Skeptics argue that drones can easily be misused to invade privacy or carry dangerous cargo, and are a nuisance.
In a legal oddity that underscores broader shortcomings in the way Washington has sought to manage the proliferation of the small aircraft, Congress had in 2012 barred the FAA from regulating drones that were deemed “recreational,” a category that reached hundreds of thousands of the devices.
The FAA said it was that constraint that delayed it from closing a key safety loophole.
Starting in 2015, hundreds of thousands of drone owners were required to add a registration number to their aircraft, akin to a car having a license plate. But they were allowed to place those numbers inside a battery or other compartment if they wished, for aesthetic, privacy or other reasons.
But starting in late 2016, security officials began warning that forcing first responders to “physically handle” a drone to find the registration number after an incident presented “an imminent risk of harm,” for them or people nearby, “because of the potential for the unmanned aircraft to conceal an explosive device in an enclosed compartment,” according to an FAA regulatory filing.
The requirement that recreational drones be registered at all was thrown out by a federal judge in May 2017, though Congress explicitly allowed it in December 2017, and further freed the agency to regulate drone safety last year.
Last week, the FAA issued a new regulation that requires registration numbers be placed on a drone’s “external surface.” It said the new mandate is being imposed without following the usual requirement that it provide prior notice that a rule is being developed and allowing ample opportunity for public comment.
The regulation needs to take effect Feb. 25, the agency said. Otherwise, “first responders could be exposed to additional risk during the notice and comment period as a result of the attention drawn to the vulnerability.” The agency will still accept comments until March 15, and could make amendments later.
An agency spokesman said that in 2015, “traditional aircraft modelers and other industry stakeholders” had balked at the requirement, so the FAA decided the registration numbers could be placed inside the device as long as it was “easily accessible without any tools.”
But “recent tactics employed include hiding explosives in the battery compartment,” the spokesman said. “Due to the use of such tactics and concerns expressed by the U.S. national security community in light of such attacks over the last two years,” the FAA is changing the rule now.
Although the FAA says first responders will be able to see a registration number without touching a drone, the requirement still falls far short of what security officials say is necessary.
The agency says the benefits it anticipates from sharply expanded drone use will only be possible if there is a remote identification system in place that will allow law enforcement to know, from afar, who is flying the aircraft.
Officials envision an electronic tracking system that could identify a drone’s owner and help tell friend from potential foe. The FAA says the process of developing and finalizing a remote ID regulation is expected to take about two years.
The FAA does not intend to finalize the new rules for flying drones over people until the remote ID regulations are finished, according to an FAA filing, “because these operations have a potential impact on public safety and national security.”
Allowing routine flights over people would mark a major shift in policy.
The FAA is proposing that drones weighing .55 pounds or less would no longer need a special waiver to fly over people.
Larger drones would require operators to follow a new set of “performance-based requirements” influenced by rules for missiles and other flying debris. Those standards would not be based on weight alone, but would instead get into the nitty-gritty physics of how much force might cause what level of injury.
Manufacturers would have to prove those drones meet specific standards. According to the proposal for this class of drone, “the small unmanned aircraft must be designed, upon impact with a person, not to result in an injury as severe as the injury that would result from a transfer of 11 ft-lbs of kinetic energy from a rigid object.”
Eleven foot-pounds of energy is the equivalent of a one-pound object falling 11 feet, or a 10-pound gym weight dropping 1.1 feet.
Mark Blanks, a drone expert who directs the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, said the precise harm would depend on the specifics of the actual impact. “We’re going to be looking at the numbers to see how they align with our experimental test work,” Blanks said.
In a third category, the injury standard would be based on 25 foot-pounds, or the energy equivalent of baseball going roughly 49 miles per hour, Blanks said. In that category there would be limits on where those drones could go, according to the FAA.
Flying over open-air assemblies would be prohibited. Flights would need to be over sites with restricted access, and the people there would need to be notified beforehand. The drones could transit over people in areas with unrestricted access, as long as they didn’t stop to hover.
“Exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin” would be barred in the second and third categories, the agency said.
Prohibitions on night flights would be lifted under the proposal, as long as pilots took a test or received training and there are lights on board that can be seen from three miles away. But pilots could apply for a waiver from the rule.
Flying drones over a moving car would still be prohibited since “the potential forces that would result when a small unmanned aircraft impacts a moving vehicle on a road pose unacceptable risks due to head-on closure speeds.”
Some industry advocates — who hope to see a further loosening of drone rules to routinely allow flights at great distances, beyond what operators can see themselves — argued that the moving-vehicle prohibition would be severely limiting given the omnipresence of roads.
The proposed regulations allow pilots to apply for a waiver from this rule, too, and the FAA asked for comments about whether it should change course and allow such flights over vehicles without a waiver.
The FAA said it is also considering new regulations “to reduce risks to public safety and national security” as drones become an even bigger presence over U.S. skies.
Among the possibilities would be requiring minimum distances between drones and particular locations, or making changes to existing limits on how high or how fast they are allowed to fly.
Flying too close to critical infrastructure or large gatherings can cause safety problems, the agency noted. The agency said it also is aware of cases where drones “have been used to conduct illegal surveillance and industrial espionage,” to disrupt communications networks, interfere with airports and commercial flights, and “to deliver incendiary, explosive, chemical and radiological payloads.”
The agency is considering further restrictions on the payloads drones can carry. Weapons are banned, as are hazardous materials.
“This definition includes many types of hazardous substances, such as chemicals or hazardous waste, but does not address all types of payloads or sensors that could pose a threat to public safety or national security,” the FAA said.
“What types of payloads should be prohibited and why?” the FAA asked in its proposal, which also seeks comments on whether drones should be required to fly as part of an “unmanned traffic management system,” a type of automated version of air traffic control for drones.