When it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles, it’s starting to become the Wild West out there.
Drones are flying across the U.S. and being used by researchers, farmers, amateur photographers and others.
But if they’re used for commercial purposes, it’s illegal – at least in the view of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Technology has advanced quickly – much faster than the regulations that government officials say are needed to ensure safety.
So as Americans try out drones to deliver beer, photograph university campuses and scout out accident scenes, federal officials have ordered them to stop.
The FAA says it’s illegal to operate a drone for business or commercial purposes, no matter how seemingly benign.
“But that’s not stopping people,” said Ladd Sanger, a Dallas-based aviation lawyer and a managing partner with Slack Davis. “We’re seeing a lot of people violating the FAA regulation.”
While many people agree there should be guidelines and a framework for commercial use, Sanger said, right now there’s no agreement about what authority the FAA has over drones.
“You have a NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) law judge who says effectively there are no rules,” Sanger said of an administrative law judge who ruled the FAA doesn’t have authority to enforce regulations that don’t exist.
The FAA has appealed. It argues that it has authority to regulate all aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, including the commercial use of a hobby-size unmanned airplane.
The case that the judge dismissed involved Raphael “Trappy” Pirker, who was fined $10,000 by the FAA.
Pirker’s hobby plane flew over and filmed the University of Virginia’s medical school campus. Pirker then sold the video to an advertising agency, prompting the FAA to file the complaint, alleging Pirker operated the drone in an unsafe manner.
The FAA is appealing the judge’s decision to the full NTSB, “which has the effect of staying the decision until the Board rules,” it said. “The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground.”
The agency does allow the recreational use of airspace by hobbyists with small, radio-controlled, model airplanes for personal use. It generally limits operations to below 400 feet above the ground and away from airports and air traffic.
The FAA is working on operating rules that will apply to a wider variety of users, it said.
In 2012, Congress told the agency to come up with a plan for the safe integration of unmanned vehicles in U.S. airspace and gave it a deadline of Sept. 30, 2015.
Integration will be incremental, the FAA said.
In December, the FAA authorized six states as drone test sites.
The agency said this month that it plans to publish a proposed rule for the use of small drones, defined as those under about 55 pounds, later this year. That will likely include provisions for commercial operations.
Still, the approval process will take another couple of years, said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems in Arlington, Va.
Rules for larger drones are further away.
Some experts say the FAA isn’t moving fast enough.
“In this Wild West scenario, the only regulation is you can’t do it at all,” Sanger said, at least commercially.
And that’s not good for anybody – not the FAA, the UAV operator, consumers, real estate companies, business owners, advertising agencies, farm owners, newspapers or the public at large, he said.
“Everybody deserves for the FAA to come up with a rule to take into account this new technology,” Sanger said. “We need to be able to have commercial use of UAVs. We need to have standards, training guidelines and protections (for those on the ground). That needs to happen sooner rather than later.”
An economic boost
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles is poised to become a multibillion-dollar industry.
A study last year predicted that 2,515 jobs could be created in Kansas-based UAV companies between 2015 and 2017 – once the FAA adopts and implements rules.
Beyond 2017, another 3,716 jobs are expected to be created in the state by 2025, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
The total economic impact to Kansas is expected to exceed $2.94 billion, the study said.
The use of drones promises to revolutionize everything from crop management to package delivery.
“The modern-day cowboy will be a guy wearing Google glasses sitting on horseback commanding a UAV to help muster cattle,” Sanger said.
The FAA predicts that as many as 7,500 small commercial drones will be in use within five years once regulations are in place.
“When the FAA comes out with regulations, you’re going to see an explosion of the commercial use of UAVs,” Sanger said.
Other nations lead
The U.S. is lagging other countries in building, selling and using drones.
They are used to monitor a volcano in Costa Rica, fight poachers in Nepal and deliver medicine to flood victims in Asia, Toscano said. They were also used to measure radiation levels after the 2011 tsunami in Japan damaged a nuclear reactor.
“We use them to do the dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull jobs,” Toscano said.
They’re good at delivering things and at providing awareness.
Television networks use drones to cover cricket matches in Australia. A Sydney company rents textbooks to college students and plans to deliver them with drones later this year, according to the Associated Press.
In a publicity stunt last year, a Domino’s Pizza franchise in the U.K. delivered two pizzas using a drone.
But when Lakemaid Beer tried to use a drone to deliver beer to ice fishermen on a frozen lake in Minnesota, the FAA cried foul.
Safety as a priority
Sanger was at an outdoor St. Patrick’s Day event in Dallas this month where a drone was hovering and flying overhead. A band was playing and food trucks were doing business.
It had four propellers and a little red strobe light on it.
“That’s how I noticed it,” Sanger said.
Last fall, he was at a Dallas outdoor cafe where a drone was taking video overhead.
“I’m getting more and more worried about it,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time that somebody’s going to get hurt with one.”
Crashes are inevitable once in a while, he said, regardless of whether an operator is properly trained.
That opens questions about liability, insurance and technology standards, the lawyer said.
“Whether it’s manned or unmanned, if it flies in the national airspace, it has to do so in a safe manner,” Toscano said. “This is all about safety.”
You don’t want to be at a wedding and have one of these things fall down and hit the bride or the groom or, more importantly, the father of the bride who’s likely paying for it,” he said.
The FAA says drones are aircraft, even though some weigh 5 pounds or less, Toscano said.
“We may have to define what an aircraft is,” Toscano said.
“Trying to slide them in under the existing definition of an aircraft is not workable,” Sanger said.
Because of the amount of air traffic that already exists, regulators say it’s necessary to find ways to ensure UAVs are safely integrated into the picture.
At low altitudes, the fear is that a small drone could collide with a helicopter or small airplane flown by a recreational pilot.
“We do have the safest skies in the world, and that’s not by accident,” Toscano said. “But it comes with a price.”
If something bad happens, people will turn to the FAA and say, “How did you let this happen?” Toscano said. “They’re going to side on caution. They’re going to side on safety, and they should.”
The industry is beginning to form itself, he said.
“There are many working groups that are trying to develop those standards,” he said.
At least 12 bills aimed at restricting the use of drones were introduced in Congress last year, many of them focused on privacy issues, experts say.
The main issue will be about safety and how much risk people will accept.
“There’s a lot of things that we have to work through to do this,” Toscano said. “It all comes back to how safe is safe enough.”