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Commercial Drones Have New Rules

Originally published on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/commercial-drones-have-new-rules-rob-sterpin

graphic with silhouette of airplane with three drones flying around it and the registry circle image

Interest in the commercial application of unmanned aircraft (drone) technology is rising rapidly. In just 10 short years, drones have grown out of their initial military use to being a fun and interesting hobby and are now fast becoming of commercial interest. While the history of drone use is primarily military, this has started to change rapidly, particularly when Amazon proposed using drones to deliver packages to customers (http://mashable.com/2014/11/19/drone-history-illustrated/).

InterDrone 2016 (http://www.interdrone.com/) was held from September 7th to 9th, 2016, in Las Vegas. With 155 exhibitors and nearly 4,000 visitors, it was the largest dedicated commercial drone conference and exhibition in the world to date. The keynote speech was given by Michael Huerta, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Among other things, Mr. Huerta talked about the collaboration between the FAA and industry that resulted in the Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule, also known as Part 107, going into effect at the end of August 2016 (https://www.faa.gov/uas/). The driving force behind the Rule was the combined concerns of both the FAA and industry about the impact that drones are having on the safety and security of airspaces. Together with the need to support ongoing innovation and commercial usage, the Rule reflects a shared goal of safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.

Industry and the FAA needed to collaborate with each other, to listen to each other, and to be flexible while drafting this new Rule, which replaces Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Under Section 333, exemptions were granted and operators needed to apply for an exemption approval on a case-by-case basis. Part 107 allows for routine commercial drone operations (within certain limitations) and drone pilots are now required to be certified.

The unexpected display of interest in the new Rule showed how much the possibilities presented by drone operations are capturing the imaginations of people. Drone sales are escalating. Sales of drones increased almost 225% between April 2015 and April 2016, according to MarketWatch (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/drone-sales-in-the-us-more-than-doubled-in-the-past-year-2016-05-27), and they are continuing to rise. According to Mr. Huerta “we now predict there could be as many as 600,000 unmanned aircraft used commercially in the first year after the Rule is in place.”

The commercial uses for drones are expanding as fast as their sales. Film makers are using them to capture shots that would previously not been possible without significant expense. First responders have new tools for search-and-rescue operations and for monitoring situations while reducing the risk to human life. Drones are used to safely inspect thousands of miles of transportation, rail, and pipeline infrastructure, power lines, and smoke stacks.

It has been less than a year since the drone registry was opened, and drone registrations now outnumber manned aircraft registrations by almost 2 to 1 (and that doesn’t include the number of drones that do not need to be registered). Registration can be done online for drones weighing between 0.55 pounds (approximately 250 grams) and 55 pounds (approximately 25 kilos). Drones weighing more than that must be registered using the conventional paper-based process and given an N-number registration. However, drones weighing less than 250 grams are not required to be registered, and there are a lot of models that fall into this category.

There are increasing concerns about the safety issues posed by drone use. The FAA receives more than 150 reports of drone sightings around airports and manned aircraft each month. The drone registry and operator certifications are only as good as the responsibleness of the people using them. If an accident is caused by a drone that is not registered, who will be punished? The US has the world’s busiest and most complex aviation and aerospace system. The Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule opens the way to more innovative uses for drones in commercial activities, but there are still some significant safety issues to consider with the increasing integration of drones with manned aircraft use.

At their core, drones are computers housed in a chassis that can fly. And this is where the aviation domain intersects with the Internet of Things and registries. By definition, the Internet of Things is made up of objects and devices that have remote network connectivity, can send and receive data, and can be connected to each other (check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_of_things or http://www.forbes.com/sites/jacobmorgan/2014/05/13/simple-explanation-internet-things-that-anyone-can-understand/). If, instead of operators being the ones required to register drones, the providers of drone technology were required to do it, then a drone’s operating system might include automatic registration with a central registry, shifting the responsibility away from the operator and reducing the risk of drones being unregistered and virtually untraceable. Once connected to a registry, alerts can be programmed to notify the operator and the appropriate authorities if (or, more likely, when) a drone strays into a “no fly” zone – making everyone’s life a little bit easier and mitigating at least some of the risk.