The FAA has recently moved a step closer towards a framework of rules for civilian, commercial small drone use, publishing the anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the topic. The proposed rules will go into a public comment period. They might be amended, and eventually they will become official rules. In the meantime, a small but growing number of companies, as well as research institutions and law enforcement agencies, operate drones under case-by-case Certificates of Authorization issued by the FAA.
The proposed rules require drone operators to earn a certification, but not a full-blown pilots license. This makes good sense: if you put drones into airspace, you should know the rules of airspace, but you don’t need to be able to sit inside an airplane and fly it.
An altitude limit is set to 500 foot. This is a usable altitude for many applications, although still quite low in practice. Many mapping flight applications, specifically in agriculture (flying a pattern and taking pictures that get assembled into a map) do not require super-high resolution images, but would economically benefit from shorter flights at higher altitudes, at reduced-but-sufficient ground resolutions.
The rules require line of sight operation. The operator must always be able to see the drone. That puts severe constraints on the area that can be covered during a single flight. Multicopters, of around a meter or less in diameter, become invisible at very small distances. Fixed wing airframes of up to several meters wingspan, are visible somewhat further (hundreds of meters), but under strict line of sight, a single flight couldn’t even cover a small 1500 acre farm.
From an operators perspective, an important question here is how line of sight will be established in practice. While a two-meter fixed wing mapping drone itself quickly blends into the sky as it flies its crop mapping path, the operator can maintain visual contact at great distances if the airframe is equipped with daylight-visible aircraft position indicator lights. Those lights can be seen at great distances, and they even communicate the drone’s orientation – but is the operator seeing “the drone” itself?
The rules also require a single operator to only run one drone at a time, not several. This makes sense if one thinks of the operator actually flying the drone, by giving control inputs to it that keep it in the air. In reality, a drone can fly itself, though. In a technical sense, the operator is usually merely a supervisor, until things go wrong. The one-drone rule implies that at a time of crisis, the operator should be able to intervene and save the day with human decision making and control inputs.
The rules do not allow operation of drones above un-involved persons. This point might leave some room for operation over worksites where people on the ground sign waivers (ask your lawyer), but it prohibits go-anywhere drones in populated environments.
The bottom line is, the proposed rules are workable for a lot of useful and safe immediate applications, in agriculture, surveying, inspections, real estate and so on. The rules will allow many different types of activities to benefit from cheap, frequent aerial images. This is an important, needed step.
Having said this, the proposed rules are also severely conservative. They deny many benefits that the technology is ready to provide. They deny entire fields of applications.
In terms of efficiency, the proposed rules deny autonomous operation, a core opportunity of drone technology. There is no practical reason for having a pair of eyes directly looking at every drone at every moment during every flight. The motivation here appears be a distrust of autonomous components in the technology, with the idea that the responsible human can always intervene at a moment’s notice and make things right when they go wrong. In practice, autonomous systems are better pilots than humans. This has been proven in the long, carefully monitored history of military drone operations, where things go wrong when humans take over for starts and landings.
Safe operation could instead be achieved through quality standards for autopilot software, and protocols for technology to follow in failure situations. While some of today’s drone software systems are not as robust as they should be, making the systems better is the thing to do, instead of simply requiring the operator to “keep an eye on it”, hoping for the possibility of human-guided recovery in failure situations. The technical systems must become robust enough to where the operator’s burden of responsibility can cover multiple drones with a realistic level of engagement. This means that failures must be addressable in autonomous, isolated and graceful fashion. There is a huge opportunity for software process improvement here, to find practices that combine fast-moving innovation with the levels of quality assurance that must be present in mission critical systems.
If we had an operator flying ten drones over a farm at a time, with nobody else around for many square miles, enough safety could still be achieved, even with systems available today. This is also the case for having an operator fly a single drone that stays aloft for five hours, covers ground beyond the horizon, and returns at the end of the day. The proposed rules break up the operation into many short, local, one-at-a-time flights: expensive flights. Is this necessary for low-complexity, predictable environments ?
Then, there are the delivery scenarios, as seen on TV: the taco- and pizzacopter, the Amazon drone, the Google drone and the Fedex / UPS drone, dropping off goods on your front porch. Delivery will not happen under the proposed rules.
Personally, I’m actually fine with this, for an interim time period. Technology today is ready and safe enough for operation in predictable environments. A farm or a construction site or an oil field are great places for drones. An urban neighborhood isn’t. There is lots of property to damage, there are lots of people in harm’s way, there are changing, unpredictable ground structures, and there is a hostile radio environment.
Today’s technology – the state of the art in autopilots, sense- and avoid systems, obstacle detection and radio control technology are not ready for close-in hostile / fragile environment operations. This will change quickly, though. Hopefully we won’t have another half-decade delay of regulation catch-up when the technology matures.
The regulation catch-up is not just about letting folks with new technology make the money they want to make. It’s about advancing civilization, doing more with less, in smarter ways. It’s about allowing opportunities to flourish in the name of the greater good. Much of the rest of the developed world is not facing the timid regulation situation, and they are not waiting for us in the US.
Looking beyond small drones (under 55 lbs) that are the subject of the current rule making process, there are large drones. Large drones have great potential beyond ordinance delivery and intelligence gathering, in civilian, business and humanitarian operations like long-range environmental monitoring, and trucking cargo across the ocean. Maybe the FAA’s long-term airspace operations modernizaton initiative, NextGen, will be embrace for large drones.
With the initial rules for small drones taking shape now, and with technology maturing, we will start see developments in two less glorious areas that are equally important for civilian and commercial operations: insurance and financing. Insurance will provide recourse, predictability and peace of mind, at a cost that is a function of technological maturity, operator’s practices, and the trust given by the public. Financing, with insurance in place, will allow a drone to become an asset like a combine, tractor or company car: an ordinary tool to get a job done.
The proposed rules provide some opportunities that will be seized by many, when the wait is over. They do so in a safe fashion. They are also cautious in a way that does not reflect the characteristics of the technology involved. Caution, in aerospace operations, is a successful concept. Thankfully, caution is here to stay. Eventually, I hope, in a more open way.