“I’ve described the situation as being a car crash in slow motion,” said Matt Waite, a professor of journalism who runs the drone journalism lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, on the lack of regulation for unmanned aerial vehicles.
“We’re watching the technology get so inexpensive and easy to use that more and more people are seeing the obvious commercial benefits and choosing to go ahead and use them in the absence of regulation,” Waite said. “And combining that with the FAA moving very slowly to put out regulations and get ahead of this — that’s the collision.”
He said this a day after 16 news organizations sued the Federal Aviation Administration over the ability to use unmanned aerial vehicles on First Amendment grounds.
UAV hobbyists are able to fly the machines up to 400 feet with certain restrictions around airports. However, flying drones for commercial purposes — if any money is made off the endeavor — is, for all intents and purposes, illegal.
Waite said the Special Airworthiness Certificate program is an experimental category within the FAA that can give permits allowing commercial drone use, but only one such permit has ever been issued, and it was for a UAV to fly over the Beaufort Sea off Alaska to monitor whales.
“The FAA can rightly claim there is a system in place to get commercial operators a license, but it’s tantamount to a ban because only one got it, and it’s far from any commercially valuable areas,” Waite said.
With the crash course set, businesses are starting to see the benefits of drones outweighing the chance that the FAA would take action against them, Waite said.
“People first have to complain about the drone use, then the FAA has to have someone to look into it, but the fact of the matter is the agency doesn’t have half of the number of people to be able to do that,” he said. “They’ve put themselves in this impossible situation here of having this ban but not having enough people to be able to enforce it.”
He said he’s worried that one “stupid” and reckless move by a commercial user would lead to bad policies that the rest of the country would be forced to follow.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The agency was scheduled to release preliminary regulations in August, but the date has been pushed to November. Congress has set a deadline of September 2015 for the rules to be in place for commercial drone use, but no one seems to think that’s realistic.
“The September 2015 date is impossible. It will never be met,” said Jerry LeMieux, retired Air Force colonel and president of the Unmanned Vehicle University in Arizona, which provides UAV pilot training and unmanned systems engineering degrees.
Waite added that “very few people actually believe the FAA is going to have anything by September 2015,” and said early 2016 is more reasonable, given the 12 to 18 months the federal government would take to review proposed rules that are released, at the earliest, in November.
The big question now is what will the regulations look like and how will they affect the burgeoning drone industry, which has a strong foothold in San Diego companies such as Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC), General Atomics and 3D Robotics.
LeMieux, who is working with the FAA-sponsored RTCA Special Committee 203 on integrating the machines into airspace, predicts there will be two classifications of drone regulation, with the split based on flight altitude.
“The first one is below 400 feet,” he said. “To fly a UAV in that space, you’ll need a permit — this is true in Canada, the U.K. and Australia. You need a UAV operating permit.”
He said he thinks would-be drone pilots will need to pass a general knowledge test, similar to the multiple-choice exam for a driver’s license, and an in-flight exam with an FAA employee.
If a candidate passes both tests, LeMieux said, he or she would then go to the Flight Standards District Office, where a certificate would be issued to fly up to 400 feet, staying from three to five miles away from airports.
Why that height? Because airplanes fly at a minimum of 500 feet, save for takeoff and landing. LeMieux said the same 400-foot maximum and radius around airports have been in place for decades for model aircraft users without incident.
It would be more difficult for unmanned-aircraft pilots wanting to exceed the height restriction, LeMieux predicted. He said that to fly here legally, the FAA would require users have a private pilot’s license and certain equipment on board — a transponder and an automatic dependent surveillance broadcast-out, or ADS-B out — which is the same as for regular airplanes.
A transponder allows air traffic control personnel to see the location of the craft and its altitude, and the ADS-B out broadcasts the GPS location of the vehicle to other planes or aircraft in the vicinity.
“So it’s actually pretty simple,” LeMieux said. “It looks complicated, and there are lot of other things to be looked at, but the [concept of operations] for the FAA is to treat manned and unmanned aircraft the same, to not change many regulations and just have them follow the normal regulations.”
Waite agreed that a regulation-split based on altitude flown would make sense, but also suggested that a weight or use breakdown.
“There’s also different thoughts about size and capability,” Waite said. “Basically, a lot of other countries are looking at regulating by weight. If it’s just a few pounds, the regulation needed is not that significant. The FAA now draws the line between large and small at 55 pounds; less is small, above that is large.”
Compounding the regulation problem are two critical components missing from the drone side that need to be implemented before UAVs can realistically fly alongside airplanes: a collision avoidance system and a reliable control link, so if the pilot loses control of the vehicle it can still fly on its own on back-up coding.
Even with these missing pieces, Waite and LeMieux agreed that time is of the essence for the FAA.
“People are already using them for commercial purposes,” Waite said, citing their use to film commercials, TV shows and movies; one movie on the use of UAVs in shooting won an Academy Award. “So it’s already going on, and honestly I’m afraid that the longer the FAA takes to do this, the more people are just going to flout the rules and … someone will do something stupid and hurt someone, which will make for bad policy.”
LeMieux said that many of the students who go through UVU go on to work either for the military, often as teachers; government agencies such as NOAA, NASA, USGS, or government contractors, all of whom are allowed to use UAVs.
Lack of regulations haven’t hindered students who want to pursue commercial careers, he said.
“They’re preparing,” he said. “You have to develop a business model, and getting the right sensor and investing in equipment then learning to use the data — that’s the key.”
Different uses for UAVs require different sensors, and data needs to be manipulated and analyzed in particular ways to get the product desired.
“If you want to see if the ground is fertile, you take optical and near-infrared imagery and, combined together with a formula, you come up with values that you can plot and hand to a farmer and charge a few thousand dollars,” LeMieux said. “The big money is in using sensors to build reports,”
“And you can’t do that in a day because for every crop you look for different pathogens. When you look at the imagery for every kind of soil or crop, there’s a different appearance and you have to train yourself to recognize what’s wrong with the image — and it’s not in books.”
Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said many of the organization’s 1,700 members are casually discussing the use of drones in agriculture, but said he isn’t aware of any that have begun to use them.
He said the main uses local farmers want UAVs for are security, “especially avocado growers who are susceptible to theft since their groves are in remote locations,” and to detect insects or nutrient deficiencies.
“At this point, it’s just sitting around having a casual conversation,” said Larson, who also said the delay centers more on technology development than legality and regulation. “I’m not sure the technology is there to do the things that I described yet, but it certainly will be in the near future.”