The FAA has issued some preliminary outlines for regulations it wants to put on remote-control drones. Folks are starting to have all kinds of concerns over their use, whether or not they’re safe, what privacy concerns they may pose, and so on.

The short version is:

  • Daylight only
  • Must remain in sight of the operator
  • Max speed: 100 mph
  • Max altitude: 500 ft
  • Max weight: 55 pounds
  • Operators must be certified, at least 17 years old, pass periodic reviews to stay certified, and be vetted by the TSA

I’m sure there’s more to it, but let me share a few thoughts (in no particular order) given that initial information.

  1. There’s got to be a distinction between “hobby-class” drones and “military-class” drones. (I made up those labels, but I think you get the drift.) The rules for a 50 pound, $1,000 machine, bought through Amazon or at a R/C hobby shop, with 15-minutes of fuel don’t make sense to apply to a 5,000 pound, $17M+ machine, built for the military, with a 24-hour fuel load. (See my pictures of Ikahna from the NASA Social at Armstrong.)
  2. Having seen what NASA is working on at Armstrong in order to bring Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s = drones) into the National Airspace System (NAS), there’s every expectation that large UAV’s will be integrated into the system within the next few years. It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when, not if.
  3. But it sounds like NASA’s getting ready for some version of  the “military-class” UAVs (possibly both military and civilian, i.e., commercial), not “hobby-class” drones. (I’m no expert by any means, but phrasing that way might be closer to the facts than what I’m seeing in the press about this.) If these new proposed regulations apply to the latter group, fine.
  4. These proposals are a start.
  5. Enforcement’s going to be a real bitch. These things can be small, zippy, and if you’re on the ground being bothered by one, there won’t be any good way to ID it. If you see a plane or helicopter going overhead, you can get the “N-number” to ID it, or at least describe it. A small drone at a couple hundred feet is going to be a dot. If you see it at all, you probably won’t even be able to tell if it’s got four or eight or sixteen rotors, if it’s got a camera, or what kind of other equipment. Unless you see someone launching and/or retrieving it, you’ll never know who it was.
  6. They need to put a 100% no-fly zone around any and all airports. Let’s say, two miles, or better yet, three. As a private pilot, I’ve landed at night in early July and had fireworks bursting all around me like I was on a bombing run deep in enemy territory. Not fun. I’ve also come way to close to sea gulls and other birds, which can leave you really dead in a small plane, or even in a large one. (Ask Captain Sullenberger.) Smacking into a 5-pound drone at 100 knots isn’t going to be any different from smacking into a pigeon or seagull. I doubt too many of the hobby-class drones will go up to 1,000 feet or more, but when you’re landing and at 500 feet on short final, a collision would be a disaster.
  7. While you’re at it, put no-fly zones around large sporting events and places like amusement parks. Get a couple dozen (or more) drones buzzing around over the Rose Bowl during the UCLA-USC game and then have a couple of them collide and come down in the crowd…
  8. What happens the first time that someone actually uses one to kill someone or cause a huge problem? For example, what if someone starts buzzing trucks on the freeway until they get one to swerve and crash, causing a multi-vehicle, multi-fatality accident that ties up the interstate for hours? What happens when someone (certified or not) flies up over a hostage situation or a major fire and gets tangled up with a police or news helicopter?
  9. There are already people loading good-sized hobby-class drones with drugs and flying them across the border from Mexico into the US. If the cops knew about it they couldn’t or didn’t stop it – it only hit the news when one crashed. Do they really think that the people doing that will pay attention to any new regulations?
  10. On the other hand, while everyone’s all up in arms about the possible problems with hobby-class drones, there are also some pretty neat things that can be done. From real-estate sales videos (something that they’re used for a lot here in LA already), photography for getting a new viewpoint or photographing an event such as a wedding, monitoring a disaster (I’m sure fire fighters on a large forest blaze would love to have fast, accurate aerial views), news reporting — there will be a million other good, legitimate, honest, incredibly useful applications.
  11. They’re a tool, just like any other. Used correctly and intelligently, they can do amazing things. Use stupidly and irresponsibly, they can be the cause of a disaster.

Pandora’s Box is open on this one. It’s going to be interesting, to say the least.

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Filed under Disasters, Flying, Politics

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