(originally printed on Feb 25th, 2015)
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has just released the proposed rules governing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAS), small drones for commercial use. The long-awaited ruling sets guidelines for how drones will share the skies with passenger planes. This ruling is not about military drones used for reconnaissance or surveillance or those that are armed with missiles and bombs. It’s about small commercial drones often resembling model airplanes. Colorado is vying to be one of six states designated as a test site for commercial drones flying over U.S. airspace.
What does the ruling cover?
These regulations apply to drones weighing less than 55 pounds and flying at a maximum speed of 100 mph. They have a small, high performance multi-rotor and are equipped with HD live stream video cameras, GPS, autopilot, often with a range of 2 to 3 miles and a 15-20 minute flight time. They cannot be flown at an altitude of more than 500’ above the ground which keeps drones away from the path of higher-flying manned aircraft such as commercial flights. They cannot be flown near airports, or in restricted airspace without permission. They cannot fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight, and drones must remain in the line of sight of the operator at all times. They can only be flown during the daytime. A camera may be attached to the drone to allow for closer flight observation by the operator. The operator of the drone must be at least 17 years old and must pass an aeronautical knowledge test and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration in order to be certified able to fly. The certificate is rated for flying small unmanned aircraft, and must be renewed every two years. The FAA will not allow online testing. The fee for the tests will be $150 and it will cover standard aviation topics like airspace regulations and classifications, the effects of weather and emergency procedures, and radio communication procedures.
FAA Administration chief Michael Huerta said he expected commercial drones would “dramatically change the way we use our nation’s airspace.” The new rules must undergo a phase of public and federal review, and will not take effect until 2017 at the earliest, allowing for more clarificaton. The proposed rules are intended to minimize the risk to other aircraft and people and property. The drones themselves will have to be registered (for a $5 fee) which will make it easier to identify crashed drones and their owners. The ruling prohibits dropping objects from drones such as paid package delivery, which both Amazon and Google want.
Benefits & uses of drones
The tasks that drones could perform in the private sector include inspecting utility towers, antennas, power lines and pipelines (especially in hilly or mountainous terrain), supporting wildlife conservation and assisting news organizations. Drones are utilized in diverse fields such as agriculture, construction, TV production, law enforcement, scientific research, aerial photography, coastal security, military training, and critical infrastructure inspection. Consensus has it that the vast majority of U.S. drones could become commonplace on farms. In agriculture they can be used to monitor crops, spray crops more precisely, keep track of hydration, and identify possible outbreaks of disease before the crop is spoiled.
Drones have life-saving functions. The FAA cites safety as their No. 1 priority. Drones would be able to perform tasks without putting lives at risk, as when needed over dangerous terrain or in bad weather during search and rescue operations or first responder medical support. Bridge inspectors and climbers working on power lines have a fatality rate that is 10 times that of construction workers, and drones can help reduce those fatalities. (95 climbers working on towers died between 2004 and 2012)
Ethics and privacy issues to be addressed
What effect will their use have on the hearts and minds and psyches of civilians conjuring up visions of drones spying from above? The regs say they cannot fly over people, but it could be a regulatory nightmare to enforce. Police departments already use them. Should they be prohibited from using surveillance drones except for those who are reasonably suspected of engaging in criminal or terrorist activity? Will surveillance include peering through a window and will it be based on a warrant? And if the government or a law agency collects information and the suspects turn out to be innocent, what will guarantee that the information collected is discarded? What are the legal consequences of an activist group using an unregistered drone? What if corporations or government agencies violate restrictions? There are legitimate concerns that the regulations will not satisfactorily address issues of privacy and omniscient surveillance.
Fortunately, many people are asking these questions and helping align our personal guidelines to keep up with the speed of evolving technology. The ACLU and 30 other agencies including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, American Library Association, Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Council of American-Islamic Relations have petitioned the FAA to establish rules. Ohio Congressman Rex Damschroder, for one, is concerned about the potential for law-enforcement agencies to use drones to monitor civilians without legal permission.
The drone industry in the valley
At the end of last year Alamosa County submitted its FAA Certificate of Authorization (COA) application to bring some of the $100 billion Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) drones industry to southern Colorado. Competition is fierce with hundreds of applicants, but if Alamosa’s application is selected, UAS Colorado (a non-profit company) and Rocky Mountain UAS will be looking to secure airspace. According to a UAS briefing in Alamosa, representatives said that Leach Airport in Center is ideal to begin official trainings. Leach figures to have a role because there is wide open space, it’s not close to a major airport, not much traffic and a sparse population. Saguache Airport as well is appropriate for research and design.
But these will be drones for military purposes.
The first Unmanned Aerial System in the valley might be Hummingbird II. Its size is 6.5” and it weighs less than an ounce, less than the weight of a AA battery. Its wings flap like a hummingbirds. It was funded by a defense research group and is intended for covert military surveillance.
It’s estimated that under these new rules the incipient industry will bring in more than $100 million per year nationally. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International projects the industry will create 70,000 jobs with $13.6 billion in economic activity during the first three years after drones fully share the skies with other aircraft. The FAA currently estimates as many as 7,500 small commercial UAS may be in use by 2018, if the necessary regulations are in place.
Colorado has the nation’s third largest aerospace economy with more than 400 space-related companies employing thousands of workers. Yet, Saguache remains one of the poorest counties in the state. It’s a great opportunity for Saguache to gain economically. According to Ken Anderson, Saguache County Commissioner, there are potentially eight companies that want to do research here.
It is not yet clear how the SLV is going to distinguish between commercial and military drones or “good” drone versus “bad” drone. Technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate and as residents of SLV face the reality of drones in their lives, we’ll be faced with finding our way through a maze of questions. When the SLV and Saguache County get around to adopting land use codes and policies to address UAS issues, residents’ input will be sorely needed to assure a healthy dialog that helps us all work with some of the key issues: how do we tap into a burgeoning industry to improve our economic quality of life while preserving our values and expectations of privacy?