“For the FAA to turn this around and be innovative was a real surprise to a lot of us,” said Gretchen West, vice president of business development and policy at DroneDeploy. “This was a great day for the industry, and there’s still a lot of work that has to be done.”
“It’s a lot better than many people, including myself, feared would come out,” said Brendan Schulman, head of commercial drone law at Kramer Levin.
So we’ll start with the positives and then cover what they see as shortcomings.
1. Drone operators won’t be required to get a private pilot license.
Many observers expected commercial drone operators to be required to receive a private pilot license. The handful of businesses to receive FAA exemptions to fly currently have been required to go to flight school, receiving the training one might get to fly a Cessna.
“A private pilot’s license was a blunt instrument to determine the necessary aptitude for this innovative new kind of aviator,” said SkyWard chief executive Jonathan Evans.
Under the proposed rules, drone operators would be required to pass a test at an FAA-approved testing center and obtain an unmanned-aircraft-operator certificate. This should cost hundreds of dollars instead of the thousands it costs for a private pilot license.
“A number of requirements that might pertain to being a private pilot simply don’t apply when you are flying an unmanned aircraft,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta acknowledged at Sunday’s news conference. “But what does apply is your ability to operate within airspace with other aircraft. So the test is really focused in that area.”
2. The rules propose a microUAS option.
Canada’s drone regulations have been widely touted for their granular approach. A one-pound drone is treated differently than a 10-pound or 50-pound drone. The idea being that regulation should be tougher on drones that are heavier and more dangerous.
In December, research from the UAS America Fund looked at the FAA’s Wildlife Strike Database and found that small- and medium-size birds caused no injuries or fatalities to aircraft below 400 feet and five or more miles from airports. This suggests that lightweight drones at low altitudes are not a safety hazard to other aircraft.
So the microUAS option leaves the door open to not treat a 50-pound drone and two-pound drone the same.
3. Drones won’t need an FAA airworthiness certification.
“This will allow the market to grow at a much more rapid pace and makes sense for these low-risk applications,” said Jesse Kallman, director of regulatory affairs at Airware. “As aircraft increase in weight, and distance from [the] operator, certifications on different components make more sense.”
Now for the bad.
1. Drones will be allowed to fly only in visual line-of-sight.
“That really does away with the whole concept of automation,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition. “My belief is that it’s incumbent upon the industry to demonstrate that automation and having to be truly unmanned is where we’re going.”
For companies such as Amazon that want to deliver goods via drone, automation is the only way for that to be economical.
2. Drones can be flown only during daylight.
“For certain agricultural applications, those are better done at night,” Schulman said. “I’m not sure why the FAA is not willing to allow night operations if the UAS is properly lit up so it’s visible to other air traffic. It seems to me to be not such a dangerous thing.”
Disclosure: Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.