3D Robotics

"Small Drones Deserve Sensible Regulation"


IEEE Spectrum has a very sensible opinion piece in their latest issue, arguing that small drones should not be treated like big drones and deserve a new approach to regulation. Excerpt:  

While many other countries are racing to develop and use such drones, U.S. innovators remain more or less stuck on the starting line, mired in federal indecision and red tape. At the recent Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference, at New York University, one speaker imagined what would happen if the Wright brothers were to face such restrictions today: Moments before takeoff, a black Chevy Suburban would pull up, federal agents would jump out, and they would halt the ill-conceived experiment for safety reasons.

While such intervention seems oddly reasonable today, government safety mandates are now being extended to astonishingly small scales. In 2007, the Federal Aviation Administration declared [PDF]  that small flying contraptions, even those the size of your hand, are considered “aircraft” and therefore require a Certificate of Authorization if they are flown outside for anything other than recreation—even if they hover just an inch above the grass. One high-level policymaker conceded that tossing a paper airplane for research or educational purposes would technically require FAA approval.

So it’s no surprise that many other countries, including Brazil, Canada, China, France, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and Switzerland, are moving ahead of the United States in civilian drone use and development, the most rapidly growing sector of civil aviation. These nations are capitalizing on the emergence of new technologies, building patent portfolios, and creating high-tech jobs that a decade ago would have been located in the United States.


Fortunately, there’s a straightforward solution: Keep public navigable airspace exactly where it’s been for nearly a century now—hundreds of feet above our heads. This would leave landowners and local communities firmly in control of their backyards, neighborhoods, farms, and towns. Such a policy is also consistent with the landmark Supreme Court case United States v. Causby, which found that landowners “must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere.”

This framework would ensure a far more human world, one where small drones are just tiny flying contraptions, not FAA-certified aircraft with the public right of transit over our tulips. These fascinating new tools could then be used where landowners and local laws allow, safely below navigable airspace and out of the way of full-size aircraft. This solution would give innovators some air to breathe and put the United States back in the game as the world begins the second century of civilian aviation.

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  • The "straightforward solution" was the defacto standard for many decades.  Only within the last several years has the FAA thrown its regulatory monkey wrench into the works.  Some people are still operating under it with the idea that FAA policy might not completely match actual law.

    The FAA isn't going to allow commercial work with model aircraft.  They are run by manned interests who are scared of unmanned craft.  It's not a safety issue since they only care about money exchanging hands, not the actual flight.  The policy of a ban on "commercial" work was the best way for them to slow down the widespread introduction of small, unmanned aircraft.

    Around 2005 several new companies were ready to start selling small unmanned systems.  The FAA managed to kill them off - or have them be acquired by large military contractors - with their policy.  No one was going to invest in a small startup company and fight a hostile regulatory agency.  The FAA got exactly what their bosses wanted.  No commercial unmanned systems.  They have managed to delay them for about a decade and hope to do so for another.

    Even if the people who control the FAA changed their minds about unmanned systems there's nothing in the culture of the organization to suggest that they would be at all a good fit to regulate what are essentially modern model aircraft.

    It will be somewhat of a mess if every local government comes up with their own unique sUAS policy, but at least it would get some pilot programs going with potentially large economic benefits to follow.  Civilian drones will be part of the near future.  The FAA can't stop them forever.  The best thing we can do is not hope for a change in attitude, but do as the article suggests and basically remove the FAA from the equation.

  • Moderator

    That paper aircraft point is bogus, the craft has to be able to sustain flight. That's why your football will never be regulated. 

    The USA is making something very simple very hard in the interests of protecting local business. What they have not factored in is that technology is moving faster than the regulators. 

  • "One high-level policymaker conceded that tossing a paper airplane for research or educational purposes would technically require FAA approval."  

    Silly question, but could footballs, baseballs, be considered aircraft? If so, the NFL and MLB have been making quite a bit of money illegally. Or, what about Frisbee's and boomerangs? Those actually use aerodynamic principals to stay aloft, and theoretically, the boomerang has a return to home function. Although, the few times I have thrown them, they've never made it back. 

    I know my questions may sound facetious, but honestly, people get injured by footballs, baseballs, Frisbee's, and boomerangs, and they have not been regulated out of existence. Wouldn't a micro-drone weighing little more than a football or baseball be as equally safe, or dangerous depending on your viewpoint?

  • what worries me is not the federal level but the most local level ie- a city. I would not mind if the FAA made a law much similer to what the AMA has to follow, and make it a crime to shoot down a uav. Now on our end, we must also find a way to prevent criminals from getting away using a drone.

  • Sometimes I wonder how this is different from DOT regs.

    Motorized bicycles (aka mopeds) are regulated and need a cert. And yes it's different from a freight semitrailer but still regulated. I wonder if it's the big drone users... regulation at the DOT level is expensive and requires state and federal laws, which means a lot of overhead for the big players in this space, though a good chance the politicians like it. If they have 2 classes (under 50#s and over 50#s) as the current proposal, I'm sure it's cheaper, but then a good chance the politicians don't like it.

  • There are FAI definition for "flying model", it can easily be interpreted and implemented for small UAVs flying model.
    The problem is not in the laws!

  • Paul is scheduled to be on the sUAS News Podcast Wednesday.  

  • Moderator

    This different approach is what CASA (Australia) are looking into.  They don't want to worry about anything that's under 2kgs and are more worried about the 99kg flying UAVs.  This is about to go to public consultation as it will require a change in their regulations etc etc.  Just a matter of grabbing the popcorn and seeing how it unfolds.

  • Oh that such reason might prevail.

    Clearly limits and controls have to be installed, lets just hope they do so with forethought for the good of the people and not just the good of the big corporations and government institutions.

    Scaled solutions with different degrees of requirement and restriction at each level are really the only way to maintain a reasonable perspective.

    A 2 pound multicopter that flies less than a hundred feet off the ground should have a LOT less restrictions than a 400 pound fixed wing in normal airspace.

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