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Small-drone technology moving faster than rules

Posted at 2:08 PM, Feb 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-22 14:10:04-05

CINCINNATI -- The landscape – or call it the skyscape – is changing rapidly in the world of small drones.

Four months ago, members of the House Transportation Committee in Washington were clamoring for the Federal Aviation Administration to hurry up and unveil regulations for the users of unmanned aviation systems, or UAS, the majority of whom are recreational drone users.

This is of significant interest in Cincinnati because there are many recreational users here and because of the potential for the area to become a UAS manufacturing, research- and skills-based hub

The Hill newspaper reported in October that the FAA missed a Sept. 30 deadline set by Congress in 2012, because it was “still in the process of crafting regulations for increased use of the devices alongside commercial airplanes.”

By “alongside,” they meant in the same airspace – and too close for comfort.

It has been a case of technological advances – and commercial availability – running ahead of the machinery of law.

The federal flight agency has been scrambling to catch up as recreational and small-business drone use has increased exponentially. On Dec. 15 of last year, the FAA issued a rule requiring owners of drones between .55 and 55 pounds to register their machines or face fines of up to $27,000 and possible federal criminal charges. Incidentally, the deadline for owners of drones of this size who purchased before Dec. 15, was Feb. 19.

But, while 347,000-some drone owners have paid $5 to register their machines for three years, according to FAA spokesperson Alison Duquette, other issues remained undecided. Those issues include: what level of certification commercial users needed for drones in the .55 to 55 range; whether the maximum flight-height would remain 400 feet; whether visual line of sight – read: can you see it? – would be required in all instances; and a host of other concerns.

On Feb. 15, the agency made public its most recent response to regulatory questions, issuing a proposal for a set of rules for small drones, known in the field as Proposed Part 107. The next step is public input. Duquette said the FAA has received more than 4,500 public comments so far.

“We’re working on the final rule which we expect to have out in late spring,” Duquette said.

Duquette said advisory panels on the draft proposal included “people from Amazon, Google (and) UAS manufacturers,” as well as FAA staff.

A summary of the major provisions of Part 107 included the following details in their proposal: 

  • Operators be required to maintain line of sight at all times
  • Daylight use only
  • No flying over any people not involved in the machine’s operation
  • Max speed: 100 mph
  • Max altitude: 500 feet
  • Preflight inspection required
  • Operators required to “Pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.”

And privacy issues? Duquette said those are now the purview of the U.S. Department of Commerce.