Drone Makers Worry FAA Rules Will Quash Industry

Having a drone deliver a package to your doorstep minutes after ordering it online would bring instant gratification to a new level. But there’s a problem: that and many other commercial uses of drones are illegal in the U.S. under current regulations.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working on rules to govern the use of drones, rules that are supposed to be completed by next September. If early reports about the guidelines are correct, the rules will stifle the domestic drone industry and push it to other countries, says Helen Greiner, the CEO of drone maker CyPhy Works and co-founder of iRobot.

“The industry is hoping to change this and make the rules definitely be safe, but make sense for the current state of technologies,” she says. Greiner and robotics expert and University of Massachusetts at Lowell professor Holly Yanco spoke about drones and robots at Xconomy’s Tech Agenda 2015 event yesterday and the topic of regulations loomed large.

(L-R) Holly Yanco of UMass Lowell and Helen Greiner of CyPhy Works discuss robotics and drones at Xconomy's Tech Agenda 2015 conference. Copyright Keith Spiro Photo.

(L-R) Holly Yanco of UMass Lowell and Helen Greiner of CyPhy Works discuss robotics and drones at Xconomy’s Tech Agenda 2015 conference. Copyright Keith Spiro Photo.

The use of drones, which are also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), is exploding, providing hobbyists and professionals new ways to shoot video, monitor land and equipment from above, as well as many other non-military uses. Hobbyists are allowed to operate drones away from airports and under 400 feet, but commercial use requires an exemption, which effectively prohibits the use of drones for business.

If the FAA can establish commercial rules, it would open up practical uses of drones, much the way the FDA’s actions did for medical robots, Yanco says. “I think where we are with drones and the FAA is where we were a decade or two ago with medical robotics and the FDA. We’re seeing some breakthroughs there and I think we’ll probably see them with the FAA as well,” she says.

But drone enthusiasts are complaining that the FAA’s reported rules are too restrictive. According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, the rules could require drone operators to have a license to fly a manned aircraft even if the devices weigh less than 55 pounds. They also would need to fly below 400 feet, operate within the operator’s line of sight, and not be able to fly at night.

The regulations are a response to the availability of low-cost, small drones—some quad-rotor drones only weigh a few pounds and cost less than $1,000 equipped with a camera—and dangerous operation by hobbyists, such as flying drones near airports.

Google and Amazon have already invested significantly in drone delivery, but they’re doing testing outside the U.S. for fear of running afoul of upcoming rules, Greiner says. “Right now, all of the major companies are just moving things overseas, which I think is bad for the United States, bad for economic development and bad for robotics in this country,” she says.

The Small UAV Coalition, which counts Google, Amazon, and few other companies on its board, echoed Greiner’s comments.

“Without prompt action by the FAA on reasonable commercial rules, American companies will be forced overseas where the regulatory environments for UAV testing and use are more sensible,” the group said in response to the leaked FAA proposals. “Critical time for rulemaking has been wasted, focused on recreational users rather than responsible regulation of a commercial marketplace.”

Already, many people are using small drones for research, rather than strictly commercial use. For example, drones can monitor the health of crops or do pinpoint spraying in agriculture. But there are many other potential uses for drones, such as monitoring oil wells, filming houses to help sell real estate, and doing surveillance of buildings or mines.

Some companies are getting exemptions to do this sort of work, but a rule dedicated to a separate class for small UAVs is needed, says Jesse Kallman, the manager of business development and regulatory affairs at Airware, a San Francisco startup making components for drones. In a blog post, Kallman says much regulatory work needs to be done:

“As much as I want to see this rule released and the market open up, there is still a lot of work to be done in shifting the model to more of a risk-based approach, similar to what they have in Europe,” he wrote. “If you can ensure your overall operation is safe, it should be allowed. But for now, we wait, and continue to bear with stopgap measures like exemptions. Or work outside the U.S.”

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  • BigDOGGe

    I don’t see how this delivery idea will work. Canyou just imagine the skies over town filled with dozens of criss-crossing delivery drones carrying pizzas, groceries, meds, and whatever to people too lazy to get it themselves , or are simply not able to. What a mess it’s going to be. It won’t be long before these things are colliding in midair or failing and falling on people.

    From what I’ve seen in the news, this is already happening with multi-rotors sporting cameras that are man-flown. What chance to automated flyers have?

    • DroneMan

      I can imagine a similar comment in 1903 when there was a
      post regarding the possibilities of cars in the horse paths.