This one is from Greg McNeal, another regulatory law expert
Inadvertently Posted FAA Document Provides Insights Into Forthcoming Drone Regulations
The FAA may be poised to release regulations that will impose a minimal burden on businesses, paving the way for integration of drones into the national airspace. Information about the forthcoming regulations is contained in an inadvertently published document that appears to be an FAA economic analysis of the long awaited regulations for small drones. In no uncertain terms, the purported FAA economic analysis assumes that drones provide great social and economic benefits, will save lives, and can be integrated into the national airspace with minimal risk while providing benefits that far outweigh their costs.
Less burdensome regulations and a recognition of the benefits of drones is a reversal from what many observers (including me) believed the FAA would do. The economic analysis suggests that the forthcoming regulations may allow for many beneficial drone uses. The document was obtained by a man claiming to be Steven Zeets, a professional land surveyor who filed a petition for exemption from FAA rules last year. The user of that account stated on Twitter that the document was posted to Regulations.gov, then quickly removed, but not before he saved a copy. (Note, after the Steve Zeets Twitter account claimed to authenticate the document I modified some of the language in this post).
The economic analysis provides insights into what the FAA considered and rejected while crafting regulations for small drones (those weighing less than 55 pounds, also known as sUAS). The economic analysis suggests that the FAA will adopt a regulatory approach far more favorable to the operation of drones than many expected. According to the report the FAA has decided to adopt a “minimally burdensome rule” for drones. In fact the term “minimal regulatory burden” or a variant thereof is a key theme throughout the document. If the economic analysis ends up reflecting a true assessment of the proposed rule, many drone advocates will be very happy with the FAA and their decision to regulate the lowest-risk small UAS operations by imposing a minimal regulatory burden on those operations.
A small note of caution: As stated earlier, the document appears to be the economic analysis of the proposed sUAS rule. The document is dated February 2015 and is captioned “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Regulatory Evaluation, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems” authored by George Thurston of the Office of Aviation Policy and Plans, Economic Analysis Division. It’s possible this is a leaked draft that has since been revised or is otherwise incomplete or inaccurate. With that caveat lector disclaimer out of the way:
Here are 9 key takeaways regarding how the proposed FAA regulations will handle drones:
The FAA believes drones provide great social and economic benefits. The agency admits that drones provide significant societal benefits, and that the social benefits will continue to increase as entrepreneurs enter the drone marketplace. The agency noted that if the use of a small drone replaces a dangerous, non-drone operation and saves even one human life, that savings alone would result in benefits outweighing the expected costs of the integration of drones into the national airspace. Specifically, the agency found that integrating small drones into the national airspace will have an economic impact of greater than $100 million per year in benefits. The FAA sees great upside potential in aerial photography, precision agriculture, search and rescue/law enforcement and bridge inspection (specifically noting the nearly 45,000 bridge inspections that could be conducted by drones each year). The agency estimated that at a mere $5 per acre of cost reduction, drones in precision agriculture could produce billions of dollars per year in cost savings. For operators that can’t afford to purchase their own drone or train their personnel to operate them, there will be a market for end users to seek contracted small UAS services (full disclosure, as of aFebruary 12th, I began collaborating with Measure, a company that provides drone services on a contract basis).
Drones will save lives. The FAA assumes drones will provide safety benefits by allowing the substitution of drones for operations that pose a higher level of public risk. Climbers working on towers have a fatality rate that is 10 times that of construction workers, and drones can help to reduce those fatalities. For example, 95 climbers working on cell and other towers died between 2004 and 2012. If drones had been available for those inspections, those fatalities could have been avoided. The FAA believes that drones will become a safer and less costly substitute for manned aerial photography, will enable safer operations than manned aircraft for agricultural purposes, and will allow quicker responses in search and rescue and disaster relief operations. The FAA reviewed accident data related to aerial aviation photography and found that out of 17 accidents, a drone could have substituted for the manned operation in two cases — both cases could have ended in fatalities, and could have been performed by a drone.
The FAA will not require a commercial pilot certificate for drone operations. The FAA considered requiring drone pilots to obtain a commercial pilot certificate, have a Class II medical certificate, pass an aeronautical knowledge test, and demonstrate flight proficiency and aeronautical experience before a certified flight instructor. The FAA determined that drones pose a low level of pubic risk and that imposing all of those requirements would be unduly burdensome. Instead, the FAA will require an operator to pass an aeronautical knowledge test before obtaining an unmanned aircraft operator certificate, and that knowledge test will need to be taken at a certified testing site in person. On-line testing was rejected due to concerns about the integrity of the test, and the possibility that personally identifiable information might be at risk through on-line test taking. The FAA believes that the cost of obtaining a small UAS operator certificate will be less than $300 and the operator will be required to pass a recurrent test every 24 months and undergo vetting by the TSA. The FAA will not require flight school and believes that little preparation would be necessary for applicants with an existing pilot certification.
The FAA decided to accommodate all types of drone businesses by adopting the least complex set of regulations across all sizes and categories of drones. In pursuit of that goal, the FAA determined that segmenting drones into different categories based on weight, operational characteristics, and operating environment was too complex and burdensome for the public and the FAA. By treating all small drones as a single category without airworthiness certification,the FAA believes they can accommodate a large majority of small drone businesses and other non-recreational users . The FAA concluded that their single category rule will mitigate risk while imposing the least amount of burden to businesses and other non-recreational users of even the smallest drones. While the FAA considered a “micro UAS” subcategory of drones — the micro drone rule proposed by the UAS America Fund — they ultimately decided that the micro drone proposal should be treated as a comment to the FAA’s rulemaking, rather than as the separate petition that it was filed as.
The FAA considered, but rejected onerous inspection, maintenance and permitting requirements for drones. The agency determined that such requirements were not proportionate to the risk posed by small drones. The FAA specifically noted that the light weight of drones versus manned aircraft means that drones pose significantly lower risk to people and property on the ground. As such, the FAA believes that inspection and maintenance of small drones pursuant to existing FAA regulations would not result in significant safety benefits. While inspection, maintenance, and permitting requirements will not be required, the FAA notes that statutory constraints will require unmanned aircraft to be registered. Registration fees will cost $5, and will need to be renewed every three years.
The FAA will require drones to be operated within line of sight of the operator, rejecting technology as a substitute for an operator’s sense and avoid responsibilities. The FAA considered whether technological means could serve as a substitute for the operator’s see-and-avoid responsibilities, for example by utilizing onboard cameras. The agency believed that technology has not yet advanced to the point where it could be miniaturized and used on board a small drone. Specifically, the FAA found that no acceptable technological substitute for direct human vision in small UAS operations exists at this time. Perhaps they missed theIntel announcement at CES — no doubt this will come up in the comments to the NPRM.
Drone flights will need to take place between sunrise and sunset. Regulators considered allowing drone flights after sunset, as it would allow for a greater number of drone operations in the national airspace. However, because such flights would take place at low altitudes it would increase risks to persons on the ground. Mitigating those risks would require equipment and certification that would run contrary to the FAA’s goal of a minimally burdensome rule.
Drone flights will need to be below 500 feet. Fearing the risk to manned aircraft operations above 500 feet, and recognizing that flights at that altitude would require greater levels of operator training, aircraft equipment, and aircraft certification, the FAA rejected the idea of allowing flights above 500 feet because the goal of the sUAS rule is to regulate the lowest-risk small UAS operations while imposing a minimal regulator burden on those operations.
Less burdensome rules mean more people will comply with the rules, decreasing enforcement costs. The FAA believes that their proposed rule will not increase enforcement costs because the legal standards will result in increased compliance by operators. Moreover, the clearer simplified standards will reduce the uncertainty associated with drone operations, reducing the likelihood of enforcement litigation (because litigation is more likely when the parties disagree as to which legal standards are applicable to an operation and how those standards apply to the operation).
The assumptions made by the FAA in their economic analysis seem to indicate that their first stab at regulating the drone industry will be a success. Many commentators (including this one) will be pleasantly surprised if the regulations match the views in the purported economic analysis of the proposed regulations.