The technological equivalent of prohibition finally has an end in sight. On Sunday, the FAA proposed rules for integrating commercial drones into the U.S. airspace. While there are still some hurdles to get past, the message of the FAA is clear: drones have enormous economic potential and it’s time to let people reap those benefits.
Before we get into any specifics, it is important to realize nothing is set in stone yet. The FAA published a Notice for Proposed Rulemaking – not a law. The 200 page document is what the administration thinks the rules should be, but they are required to take public comments on the NPRM over the next 60 days which they can totally throw away if they choose to, when they publish enforceable regulations (probably next year).
The good news is a lot of the proposed rules are perfectly aligned with practices the drone community currently observes: don’t fly higher than 400 feet, don’t fly near airports, don’t fly at night, etc. The FAA specifically calls out the benefits drones can bring to agriculture, infrastructure inspection, search and rescue operations, and aerial photography. These are the use cases the NPRM is hoping to enable and there is a lot of money to be made bringing UAV technology to these industries.
But the one stipulation everyone is up in arms about is the “proposed rule would require the operator to keep the small unmanned aircraft close enough to the control station to be capable of seeing that aircraft through his or her unaided visual line of sight.” (p.13)
Specifically, the media is saying this part of the document is a blow to the drone delivery services being developed by Amazon, Google and others.
Paul Misener, vice president of global public policy at Amazon, has fed the flame telling ABC News, “Based on the proposal, even then those rules wouldn’t allow Prime Air to operate in the United States. The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers. We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need.”
Jeff Bezos’ 60 Minutes demonstration of Amazon’s Prime Air drone delivery service was certainly a catalyst that brought us to this point but, reading over the NPRM, I can’t help but think this document was not intended to apply to Amazon.
Sunday’s NPRM seeks to reign in current drone pilots and serves as a first step of acclimating our airspace (and the American public) to life with drones. As mentioned above, the document calls out specific use cases for drones that will be legally viable under the eventual rules. But these use cases don’t require a drone to go beyond line of sight (BLOS) and so most of the NPRM deals with regulating the pilots rather than the technology.
Amazon and Google don’t want to have to manually pilot every single drone they send out for delivery -they want to be able to tell a drone “go here and drop this off,” and the drone does so on its own.
The truth about UAV technology is it will be most efficient when there is no need to have someone behind the controls. Autonomy is the name of the game.
But the goal of this NPRM isn’t to enable autonomous drone flights. The goal is to allow commercial drone flights in the U.S. and, as it stands, the document seems to do just that.
(Also, under the NPRM, Amazon can now test Prime Air in the U.S., one of its chief complaints to this point.)
When an autonomous service like Prime Air is ready to launch, a new set of regulations will need to be published that deals not with the pilots or the vehicles but with the technology that governs these autonomous flights.
The technology is close, but not quite there yet.
“The FAA already has a well-established infrastructure for navigating a piloted aircraft through airspace where pilots can’t see what’s around them,” Skyward CEO Jonathan Evans said in reaction to Sunday’s news. “It’s called flying under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), and by the FAA’s definition, ‘IFR flight depends upon flying by reference to instruments in the flight deck, and navigation is accomplished by reference to electronic signals.’ A set of ‘Robotic Flight Rules’ (RFR) could perhaps improve on this well-established infrastructure; with ‘instruments’ becoming a global network of ground and airborne sensors, and ‘electronic signals’ transferring critical aviation information.In the era of aerial robotics, the ‘flight deck’ has become any portal to the Internet, and it’s possible to write a set of aviation rules that collapse elegantly into a digital vernacular. Amazon Prime Air’s drones can join a network of urban skyways defined by geofenced corridors and zones, and their autopilots will conform to the rules of the road with the kind of precision we can trust and expect from a computer. Aviation safety will only continue to improve.”
One step at a time, folks.
Sunday’s NPRM is the equivalent of the government saying “ok, you can now get your license to drive your cars on the roads.” The next step for drones is the same step we are currently facing with cars: they are ready to drive themselves but the rules of the virtual road have yet to be ironed out.