The Rise of the Drones

Drones play an increasing role in modern life; all indications are that this role will increase, maybe to disturbing levels. The popularity and availability of drones have sky-rocketed in recent years. As with most new technologies, the development of the law to regulate this technology lags behind. To their credit, the DOT and FAA have been pro-active in developing regulations. This article will address some of these regulations and the expected development of future regulations.

Initially, the FAA prohibited the use of drones in the commercial industry. Gradually, the FAA granted exemptions to certain companies for the commercial use of drones. These exemptions permitted these companies to use drones for:

(i)                  the movie and video industry;

(ii)                real estate photography;

(iii)               agricultural monitoring;

(iv)              aerial surveying;

(v)                delivery of medical supplies in rural areas; and,

(vi)              inspecting flare stacks

Applying for exemptions can be costly and the outcome is not guaranteed. However with growing commercial demand, the FAA has gradually loosened its restrictions and granted more exemptions.

The FAA and DOT finalized the first operational rules for routine commercial use of drones which took effect in August 2016. These regulations are available at: http://www.faa.gov/uas/media/Part_107_Summary.pdf. The issuance of these regulations is projected to generate $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 jobs over the next ten years.

While these regulations are fairly comprehensive, they prohibit the use of drones beyond the line of sight of the operator over unprotected persons on the ground. Further, there are limitations on size and when drones can be flown. Based on these restrictions, plans to use drones for delivery services will likely have to wait. However, the FAA is permitting companies to apply for waivers, available if companies demonstrate that the proposed flight will be conducted safely. Even if a drone flight is permitted, air traffic control authorization is required if the flight is in controlled airspace. Requests for waivers and authorization must be applied for on the FAA’s online portal located at https://www.faa.gov/uas/.

The FAA is trying to balance the benefits of drone use with its mission to protect public safety. The FAA also provides all drone users with recommended privacy guidelines and is set to issue new guidance to local and state governments on drone privacy concerns.

The White House announced that the FAA is currently working on developing regulations to permit the safe and beneficial use of drones over crowds. As part of this development, the FAA launched an Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team and a Drone Advisory Committee.

We expect the FAA to allow a more expansive use of drones in the years to come. Like it or not, the drones are here and are not going away; they are rising.