After publishing a proposal for rules for small drones on 15 February, the US Federal Aviation Administration is gearing up to collect comments by industry and drone enthusiasts alike. Judging by the initial strong reactions – both negative & positive – busy days are ahead for the FAA. The proposal made Amazon rather unhappy. But does that mean is it time for drone fans to celebrate? Perhaps not yet. Safety (and security) of the ‘unmanned’ or ‘remotely piloted’ aircraft systems (RPAS), and the way they are operated, keep prompting new questions globally, including in the EU.
The proposed FAA rules allow for drones under 55 pounds (25kg) to fly below 500 feet (150m), further than 5 miles (8km) from an airport and not directly overhead of people. Maintaining constant visual line of sight with the drone is also a requirement. All this is to ensure safety is not compromised.
However, the proposed rules come as a particular blow for companies like Amazon which are developing drone-delivery service programs which require the drone to fly beyond this point. But even with these rules, if the technology is unsafe or there are no enforceable operating standards, safety could be affected.
Given the shape and size of drones, they might not be visible to other traffic, especially when speed is taken into account. Last year, 25 episodes in which small drones came within a few seconds or a few feet of crashing into much larger aircraft were reported in the US, according to the Washington Post. RPAS – even light ones below 1kg – can cause significant damage to helicopters and the impact of damage to fixed-wing commercial aircraft is not even evaluated. The potential safety (and security!) risks are immense.
On the other side of the spectrum are the ‘drone enthusiasts’ who see the FAA proposals as an ‘open door’ for flying drones withoutan FAA airworthiness certificate.FAA does not require either for operators to get a private pilot license, as was initially expected. Instead, they would be required to pass a test at an FAA-approved testing center, obtain an unmanned-aircraft-operator certificate and retake the test every two years.
Many aviation experts and trade groups spoke up requesting a slowdown of the commercial application of drones. The lack of knowledge about low level operations and the limitations and properties of RPAS and their operators is a worrying prospect. This is one of the aspects identified by ECA experts who are currently working on an in-depth analysis on RPAS and an action plan on how to address the multiple challenges related to their integration. As Europe is also looking into harmonizing the regulatory framework for RPAS– with a high-level conference just completed in Riga – the US experience is extremely relevant. For now one thing is clear: recreational users will be able to fly their drones in the US. It is to be seen when and whether this is indeed safe.
The new rule also proposes operating limitations designed to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground:
- A small UAS operator must always see and avoid manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away.
- The operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.
- A small UAS operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the UAS.
- A small UAS may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.
- Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph.
- Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).