After years of delay and a failure to meet several self-imposed deadlines, the Federal Aviation Administration on Sunday hastily released draft regulations for the commercial operation of lightweight unmanned aircraft systems, aka drones. A summary of the 200-page document was also provided.
The unexpected release followed the inadvertent posting on the FAA’s Web site of a document analyzing the draft rules, which the agency failed to take down before drone enthusiasts found it and circulated it.
This week’s snafu is par for the course with this proceeding, which has been holding back the development of what is widely forecast to be a multi-billion dollar industry with the potential to launch “Big Bang” disruptions in industries as diverse as agriculture, entertainment, transportation, ecology and emergency services.
But not until the FAA removes what has been until now a nearly complete ban on commercial drone operation. (Hobbyist drones can operate largely without permission, so long as they remain below 400 feet and stay away from airports.)
The draft regulations released Sunday, originally scheduled for 2011, must now go through a lengthy notice and comment process before being finalized. In 2012, Congress ordered the FAA to integrate commercial drones safely into U.S. airspace by 2015, a deadline the agency is certain to miss by at least a few years.
Safety, of course, is essential for flying technologies, more so than many other recent innovations that have already entered commercial life without much in the way of regulation. It’s one thing for your smartphone or 3D printer to crash, after all, but quite another when it’s your drone.
Still, other countries, notably Canada and the UK, have already made substantial progress in working out common sense rules for commercial drone operation. And that has given them a leg up in what is already a global race to develop and apply the technology to create new applications.
In the absence of action one way or the other from the FAA, U.S. commercial drone operators have been stranded in bureaucratic limbo. The agency started issuing individual exemptions late last year, mostly for closed set film production, but has so far only granted 24 exemptions from nearly 350 requests.
The substance of the proposed regulations released on Sunday reflect the same awkwardness evident in the FAA’s clumsy approach to developing them. While the draft rules do not require commercial drone operators to obtain a pilot’s license, as earlier reports anticipated, operators will still be regularly required to pass written tests that will only be administered in person, and obtain some form of clearance from the Transportation Security Administration.
The agency also left the door open to developing less onerous rules for very lightweight drones, perhaps weighing less than 4.4 pounds and made of plastic or other material unlikely to cause much damage in a crash. But many industry observers expected “micro drone” rules would come first, not last.
And if all of this sounds vague, that’s because it is. The proposed regulations are light on specifics, including how the agency plans to enforce the new rules when they eventually go into effect.
But one thing is clear. The most disruptive — and potentially the most valuable — applications of drone technology will not be legal any time soon. The draft rules, for example, make clear that commercial drones cannot be operated outside the visual line-of-sight of operators, foreclosing the possibility of drone-based delivery of small and lightweight goods, including groceries. (On-board cameras cannot substitute for actual operator visibility of the aircraft.)
Commercial drones will also be banned except during daylight hours, which sweeps away many potential agricultural applications.
Does the drone industry deserve a freer hand? Given the unarguable dangers inherent on the ground and in the air to introducing perhaps millions of new aircraft, government regulation is an unavoidable reality for the drone industry.
But the FAA’s slow and haphazard performance thus far is doing nothing to build confidence either with consumers or industry that what’s emerging from this painful bureaucratic process is anything close to the best possible rules or the fastest possible delivery of them.
As with many emerging disruptive technologies, the FAA and other agencies continue to apply 19th-century regulatory processes to 21st-century problems. The mismatches, as here, are only growing more frequent, and more painful.
Meanwhile, as the basic components for drone aircraft continue their dive into the realm of better, faster, smaller and cheaper, the evolution of this remarkable technology will only continue to accelerate.
If we can’t quickly develop more efficient and effective ways to develop adaptable regulations that maximize safety and economic value, the drone revolution will continue to be held back unnecessarily.
Either that, or its disruptive potential will be rerouted to countries that can innovate their regulatory machinery faster than we can.
Larry Downes is co-author with Paul Nunes of “Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation” (Portfolio 2014). He is a project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy.