It is rare that industries come to Washington begging for more regulation. But that is how we in the unmanned systems business find ourselves with respect to small unmanned aerial systems (SUAS). A notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) has been on the shelf for years. We need to move forward before a serious accident occurs.
The issue of how to safely integrate the myriad sizes and classes of UAS into the national airspace is complex. But it is clear that in at least one category, small UAS (under 55 lb.), we have a good idea how to start. The FAA convened a SUAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee, which had broad participation from many communities and completed its work in 2009. Many of us expected an expedited release of draft regulations. We are still waiting.
These regulations would impact three distinct communities. First are hobbyists, whose interests are represented by the Academy of Model Aeronautics. Since 1936, the AMA has set voluntary safety standards for models under which hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts have flown millions of flight hours with an admirable safety record. The AMA takes the not unreasonable position that voluntary standards have worked so far, so modelers should be exempted from FAA regulations. They convinced Congress to include language to this effect in the FAA's 2012 reauthorization bill.
The second category is the “do-it-yourself drone” community, which comes more from computer and robotics enthusiasts than traditional aeromodelers. Chris Anderson, a former editor at Wired, estimates there are thousands of do-it-yourself drones in operation. Unlike traditional models, which are either free-flight or controlled by radio within the pilot's line of sight, these computer-driven aircraft literally have minds of their own. The third category comprises aerospace and defense companies, which includes everything from the industrial giants to garage startups.
Models fly under the FAA's Advisory Circular 91-57, issued in 1981. Everyone else needs either a special airworthiness certificate (experimental ticket), or a certificate of authorization (available only to public entities), or must fly in restricted airspace. The effect of this is that commercial UAS users—and by commercial, we basically mean anyone in the private sector who is being paid to do this—are prohibited from operating UAS in the National Airspace. This covers everything from aerial photography and surveying to news reporting to communications relay to cargo delivery. The effect is that professional aerospace companies—which arguably have the most to lose from lax standards, and who are mostly likely to have established safety procedures, to follow the rules and to carry good insurance—are being punished, while amateurs operating on the fringes are allowed to operate more or less with impunity. The public, of course, cannot tell the difference.
This is a recipe for disaster. The current situation effectively encourages people to fly in quasi-legal activities, without uniform standards and with little or no enforcement. This is not the way aviation has achieved its enviable safety record.
Furthermore, the absence of FAA rulemaking encourages others to fill the vacuum and preempt the FAA. Dozens of states are either considering or have already promulgated rules impacting SUAS—a morass that the FAA will have to untangle when it finally steps up to its leadership role.
Many of us in the business find ourselves in the paradoxical situation: An airplane we operate in our day jobs is essentially illegal, but is perfectly fine if we head off to the local schoolyard as modelers and fly for fun. Activities should be judged on objective standards of safety, not on whether someone is being paid to do it.