By Sam Thielman for The Guardian
Companies are pushing for the ability to fly their drones without the strict supervision that is currently required, but regulators say it could be a long wait
If you’re hoping Amazon will send the next George R R Martin novel to you by drone, you may have even longer to wait than you thought: the FAA estimates it will be three years before it has a framework for drone operators to fly the machines without direct human oversight.
At a conference for commercial drone operators in Las Vegas on Wednesday morning, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) told the drone industry its new rules for drones will be given to the White House by the end of the year, including some more relaxed policies for corporate drone users.
At present anyone flying a commercial drone is only allowed to operate it if he can see it. For oil and gas companies, railroads, and even the forest service, relaxing the “line of sight” rules is a top priority. Each of them wants the ability to see where a rail is broken, how much oil has spilled, or the size of the forest fire as soon as possible, rather than send a human being into a potentially dangerous (or expensive) situation.
“There’s been a really unprecedented demand we’ve seen from all of you and it’s been super exciting and kind of scary for us,” said the FAA drone oversight office’s special rules coordinator, Robert Pappas, at a Wednesday morning keynote at the first annual Commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) conference. “That demand really forced us to think differently.”
Pappas directs a series of FAA safety experiments with industry collaborators called Pathfinder projects. The timeline for Pathfinder projects varies between two and three years, but the most important to many of the oil and gas executives at the conference is the regulator’s requirement that drones operate within view of the pilot at all times. One, with CNN, explores the way drone cameras are used in journalism, and another, with tech company PrecisionHawk, is developing an air-traffic control software for drones called Latas.
Pappas, charged with integrating unmanned aerial vehicles into the FAA’s policies, said the executive branch’s Office of Management and Budget should have the rules by year’s end, including an easing of the restriction that every commercial drone operator have a pilot’s license. But he said that the third Pathfinder project, a partnership with rail shipping company BNSF, had a timeline of “36 months”.
Pappas said the desire from BNSF and companies like it to operate across tens of thousands of miles of trackwork was understandable. “Clearly, operating within visual line of sight over 32,000 miles is a difficult thing,” he said.
The FAA has expanded dramatically over the past year to cope with demand from industry; more senior staff positions have been added and there is greater emphasis on quicker rule-making.
But it’s also dealing more harshly with scofflaws: the FAA recommended a record $1.9m fine for aerial photography company SkyPam, which the regulator said operated its drones without government authorization for nearly two years and didn’t respond to subpoenas. The company eventually got authorization to operate, but it didn’t get immunity from allegedly flouting the law.
Many at the conference consider easing of regulation inevitable; indeed, drone manufacturers like Kespry are preparing systems that can be set in motion and left alone to take off, gather data and return every day at the same time.
The rules slated for next year would ease some restrictions: Drones weighing less than 55 pounds wouldn’t require a pilot’s license to fly commercially, for example – the operators would instead have to pass a written proficiency test (experts at the conference said that might change to include hands-on training, as well).
With respect to other industry demands, Pappas was frank: “We’re trying to find a way to authorize these kinds of operations,” he said. “It may not be the best way, it may not be a cost-effective way, but it’s tremendously important because it identifies the bottleneck, whether they’re cost bottlenecks or resource bottlenecks or regulatory bottlenecks.”