Early Adopters and Immeasurable Opportunities
Whether it is helping natural resource companies survey their mines, oil and gas companies monitor their pipelines and inspect their flare stacks, farmers improve crop yields, commercial building inspectors conduct roof inspections, or universities advance scientific research, UAS are capable of saving time, money, and, most importantly, lives. Below is a small list of the industries devising methods to use UAS to increase operational effectiveness, mitigate risk, reduce operating costs, and maximize return on investment.
- Industries that rely on surveying or high-resolution imagery (oil and gas, agriculture, etc.).
- Industries concerned with safety and security—from construction to nuclear power to historic preservation. For example, in Peru archeologists are using UAS to map archeological sites and protect them from vandals.
- Industries interested in delivering goods and services. This includes retailers such as Amazon as well as governmental and nonprofit organizations. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding research into deploying UAS to deliver health care supplies to areas made inaccessible after disasters.
- Industries that want to provide services in areas that are difficult to access or in which infrastructure cannot support ground-based solutions. High altitude, long endurance UAS can be used to provide internet access in remote areas.
A Developing Regulatory Landscape
With the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FAA Modernization and Reform Act), Congress tasked the FAA with safely integrating UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS) by 2015. The FAA has taken an incremental approach to UAS integration and announced the first rule for commercial operations of sUAS in the national airspace on June 21, 2016. The first major domestic UAS users were public institutions (e.g., public universities) and public agencies, both state and federal. In September 2014, the FAA began permitting commercial sUAS operations by issuing exemptions authorized under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, commonly referred to as Section 333 exemptions. Section 333 exemptions have been issued to a wide range of industries, including movie production, agricultural, construction, real estate, surveying/photography, and oil/gas. After August 29, 2016, when the sUAS rule takes effect, this special exemption will no longer be required. In the meantime, current Section 333 exemption holders may continue operating under the terms and conditions of the existing until its expiration or conduct operations under Part 107 as long as the operation falls under Part 107. (Check in with us for updates regarding the sUAS rule and Section 333 exemptions.) Part 107 permits commercial operations of sUAS weighing less than 55 pounds as long as pilots abide by the required safety restrictions, including, among others:
- Operations only within visual line of sight (VLOS);
- No operations over non-participants;
- Daytime operations only or civil twilight operations with the appropriate lighting;
- Maximum airspeed of 100 mph; and
- Maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level or within 400 feet of a structure.
The rule permits the transportation of property for compensation or hire, provided that: the aircraft’s total weight, including payload, weighs less than 55 pounds; the flight is conducted within VLOS; and the flight occurs wholly within the bounds of a state.
The rule requires the sUAS operator to hold a remote pilot airman certificate with an sUAS rating. To attain a remote pilot certificate, the operator must be at least 16 years of age, be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, either pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved training center or hold a Part 61 pilot certificate, complete a flight review within the previous two years, and complete a sUAS training course.
With this first rule, the FAA has taken a big step toward formally integrating UAS into the NAS. The rules reflect the FAA’s risk-based approach to integrating UAS, addressing commercial operations that pose the least amount of risk with minimal requirements and limitations while leaving the door open for future requirements specific to UAS under 4.4 pounds, also known as “micro” UAS. A waiver mechanism allows the FAA to permit operations outside the Part 107 restrictions, including beyond-visual-line-of-sight and nighttime operations, to be assessed on a case-by-case basis if the applicant can demonstrate that the operation sought can safely be conducted under the terms of a certificate of waiver.
As the FAA continues to shape the UAS regulatory landscape, key privacy, spectrum, environmental, security, and other questions surrounding UAS remain far from resolution. Among the most noteworthy issues is the lack of privacy provisions associated with the operation of drones.
The White House tasked the National Telecommunications and Information Agency with establishing a multistakeholder engagement process to develop and communicate best practices for privacy, accountability, and transparency issues regarding commercial and private UAS use in the NAS. Stakeholders at the May 18, 2016 meeting agreed to conclude the process, and a diverse group of stakeholders came to consensus on a best practices document. The document can be found here.