Drones, the FAA, and the Forthcoming Regulatory KerfuffleSubmitted by skrapmetal at 2015-10-21 19:10:18 EDT
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Preface: I have two Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs or UAVs, as they are called), commonly referred to as “drones”. I use them for fun, and one of them occasionally for work. I have applied to the FAA for an exemption to the current Rules regarding International Airspace so I can get paid to use the thing for work rather than donating my time, as I must do now to avoid being in violation of the Rules. I also have a few little CX-10 quadcopters. They are fun to fly around inside the house and annoy the dog with, and you should stop reading this long enough to go on Amazon and get one right now.
You've all seen the cool nature scenery or skyscraper vista videos on youtube shot by the guy with the UAS. You may have seen the cool UAS crash videos, often by the same guy. You might have seen on the news the video by that douche in Connecticut who mounted a Glock pistol on one, flew it out in his back yard, and remotely fired the pistol into an embankment. The potential for amusement, wage-earning, and serious harm deriving from the responsible and irresponsible use of UASs all over the place has nudged awake the behemoth of government.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently announced that it was putting together a group to determine how they can regulate the rapidly-growing number of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in use in the US. There are several issues that are presented by the use of these doodads. Thus the head of the FAA has indicated that the Task Force will include representatives from manufacturers, hobbyists, professional users, privacy advocates, and government agencies such as the State and local law enforcement, FAA, DHS, and the FBI, to get together and hammer out the details on how to best regulate the use of UASs.
The congress and the courts have already held that UASs are aircraft. The current FAA Rules require all aircraft to be registered. The FAA has stated that it is not currently enforcing that Rule, because doing so would be impossible. But part of their new Rules, they have also stated, will be to require registration of all UASs.
So, it seems, they are going to have to differentiate between a “toy aircraft” and a “UAS”. Clearly the CX-10 is not in the same class as a 50-pound multi-camera'd 120mph surveillance drone, but where do you draw the line? One of my UAS's is equipped with a nice 3D gimbaled camera, GPS location and course programming ability, and has autonomous features that allow me to fly out of my visual line of sight (VLOS). It weighs about 4 pounds with battery, camera and A/V downlink. It uses the GPS location data to stay out of proximity of airports and other No-Fly Zones, but I can fly it straight up until it gets to 35% battery power remaining, which may or may not be over 2000 meters high. Plenty of small manned aircraft in that elevation range, you bet, even nowhere near airports. I can also turn off the GPS feature and it'll ignore No Fly Zones. Should it be regulated?
The other UAS is more stripped down. It has a smaller camera and a video-only downlink, no GPS or autonomous abilities, weighs less and goes a lot faster. It too can fly high, but I use it for steeplechase and drag racing rather than cool slow-motion video of penguins on rocks or whatever. Should it be regulated? The CX-10s weigh about 1 ounce and can fly around at about 8-10 ft/sec. Should they be regulated?
I'm of two minds about this regulation thing, even without the “keep the government out of my life as much as possible” Libertarian mindset I carry around. Seems as though there might be some equation in registering UASs and with registering cars, so when one of them runs over a schoolkid and drives off, the cops know where to start looking. If a UAS crashes into my house, I'd want to know who was flying it. Other aircraft are required to be registered and the FAA enforces that Rule. Aside: I have my contact info written on both of my UASs. If one wanders off, I want it back (they're not cheap) and I will take responsibility for any damage it causes.
I suppose that the more it weighs, the faster it goes, and more autonomous it is, the more likely that the FAA will determine it should be registered. As those properties increase, the possibility of damage to other people or property from a crash also increases. I can see the case for making it desirable to maintain one's UAS in a safe airworthy condition to reduce the possibility of a crash in the first place. The safety of the public at large may be affected by these things because they are being flown around in the air above the public, and (ideally) public safety is the point of these regulations.
On the other hand, regulations are always based on the assumption that the average person subject to the Rules would not comply with their intent were they merely suggestions. The FAA doesn't put out a booklet called “Recommended Practices for Flying Helicopters in US Airspace That You Should Follow Please”, they have Rules. I don't like the blanket assumption that I will knowingly use my UASs in an unsafe manner unless some overpaid government bureaucrat makes me give him all my personal information, pay a fee, and stand ready to be fined or imprisoned if they don't like the video I shot of the car crash scene because it was either too high above the roadway or too close to the roadway.
Privacy is another issue. California recently passed a law making it an offense of Trespass to fly a “drone” below the “navigable airspace” over other people's property. A nice idea, but their law is moot since the FAA defines “navigable airspace” as any airspace in which an aircraft may be operated, launched, safely controlled, or landed, including National airspace (0-400 ft) and International airspace (400+ feet). I can control my UAS to hover a couple mm off the ground, not through my mad piloting skills but because of the tech it carries. It cannot be trespassing if all the air above the ground is navigable airspace. But would you want a UAS hovering outside your windows, pointing the cameras in at you? Me neither.
In the end, I'm sure there will be government regulations and like all government regulations they will be complicated and difficult to comply with, there will be all sorts of court cases defining the Rules, and as always, the only people who are better off for them are the lawyers who argue about them. That's the way it is with government.
The below image is a still from a video I shot over a horse barn and equestrian center. Those are big buzzards on a thermal in the distance there. There's a reason a whole shitload of these UASs are going to be in the air soon.