The FAA is preparing to release its first set of rules governing how everyone from hobbyists to movie producers to ranchers can use drones. That’s good news, in the sense that some regulation is probably better than none—what we have now—when it comes to flying machines.
Unfortunately, while some of the proposed rules would do a lot to keep us safe, they could also significantly hamper some really good uses for drones in more rural areas. Part of the problem is that the FAA rules assign drone pilots into just two categories: Hobbyists who are flying drones in their backyard, and “commercial” pilots who are making money.
“We have to get away from these mindsets that there’s a difference between buying a DJI Phantom [a popular $1,000 drone] as a private citizen or for looking at crops,” says Ella Atkins, an associate professor for aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. Instead of dividing folks into hobbyists and commercial, Atkins believes it’s more important to “think about where they’re flying,” especially whether it’s an urban or rural area. Under these rules, “we’re not able to distinguish Times Square from a farm, and that’s a problem.”
The new proposed rules, expected before the end of the year according to the Wall Street Journal , will apply to drones under 55 pounds, limit flights to daytime hours, under 400 feet, and within the pilot’s line of sight. They would also require all drone operators to acquire a pilot’s license from the FAA. Not a special, drone-focused license, but the kind you need to actually get in a plane and fly it.
That’s not totally unreasonable. Part of getting a pilot’s license is learning all about different classes of airspace, where it is acceptable and unacceptable to fly, how to communicate with air traffic control and other aircraft, and what to do in an emergency. For a drone pilot operating in, say, Manhattan, knowing what areas to avoid is really important and having a dedicated course and certification process makes a lot of sense.
In more rural areas, however, there simply aren’t that many things to fly into. Apart from town centers and highways, most of the middle of the country is filled up with wide open spaces. That makes the onerous process of getting a license—including dozens of hours of work with an expensive flight instructor, a medical examination, and lots of classroom time—seem less necessary when the only things you might hit are cows and stalks of corn.
The 400-foot ceiling and line of sight requirements are also impractical for many possible drone uses in rural areas. For example, electric utilities routinely use helicopters to inspect their long-haul high-voltage power lines, to check they’re in working order and make sure trees haven’t grown too close to them. Farmers could use the unmanned aircraft to inspect crops, and ranchers could keep an eye on their herds, over thousands of acres. This is the kind of work drones are perfect for, but only if they can fly over long distances and far above the 200-foot towers.
One reason pilots don’t fly their planes at very low altitudes is because the closer you are to the ground, the less time you have to find a safe spot to land if something goes wrong. Flying at a higher altitude buys you time, and that’s true whether you’re operating a drone from afar or are seated in the cockpit.
Let’s note that these are early days in the rule-making process, and the FAA is known for being deliberate, if also exceptionally slow. The regulations as reported by the Journal will likely go through many more iterations before they’re finalized. But rulemakers should consider that flying over a remote nature preserve to track the migration of animals is very different from flying over the Brooklyn Bridge to track the daily movement of commuters.
The key, Atkins says, is not just translating rules for manned aviation to unmanned flight. We need rules that focus specifically on the needs of drone pilots, both in rural and urban areas. “We want regulations that help the farmer” and “help everybody remain safe,” Atkins says. The proposed rules don’t really deliver, especially since it’s likely that many will simply continue to ignore some of the more pernicious aspects. If regulation is a good thing, considerate regulation is even better.