What’s that buzz overhead? It’s not a bird—not a plane … it’s a drone. And, they are high on many wish lists this year. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) predicts that a million drones will be sold this holiday season. A million! They are becoming so prominent that the Department of Transportation recently announced a registration requirement for private drone ownership that is a must know prior to the holiday shopping frenzy this year.
Drones (also known as “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” or “UAS”) are versatile. Hobbyists use drones for pure recreation and enjoyment. Recently, however, drones are finding increased relevance in the commercial arena. Filmmakers and photographers use them to capture amazing aerial shots. Farmers use them to monitor crops. Engineers use them to inspect bridges, utility lines and pipelines. Realtors use them to show houses and property for sale. The uses are seemingly endless.
There is, however, a dark side. It takes little imagination to foresee terrorists or criminal applications for drones.
And, as attributed to Sir Isaac Newton—what goes up must come down. Thus, many are concerned about the invasion of drones and the inevitable threat to human lives (some contemplate a worst-case scenario where drones suddenly target people—a la Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds). Recently, in fact, five people were injured when a drone crashed into the crowd at the U.S. Open. It was not an intentional act, but negligent operation can certainly cause harm. Further, a drone recently crashed into a tree on the South Lawn of the White House—raising privacy concerns. And, most frightening of all—drones could interfere with airplanes. Pilots reported at least 700 drone sightings so far this year; compare that to only 238 in all of 2014.
Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who oversees the FAA, compared the arrival of drones to the dawn of the first automobiles. “All of a sudden, this new entrant is trying to occupy the same space as horse-drawn carriages. In some respects, that’s where we are. We’re trying to integrate this new use in a space that’s been occupied by airplanes, helicopters, hobbyists and general aviation for so long.”
Clearly, there is a firefight on the horizon. On one side, people who are excited about the enormous potential of drones; and on the other, people who worry about privacy and safety. Undoubtedly, the battle will take-off this holiday season as an additional million drones swarm America’s sky, which may be a nightmare scenario for the FAA.
What you must know prior to purchasing a drone this holiday season:
Citing privacy and safety concerns, in October, 2015, the FAA announced a new registration requirement for private drone ownership. Currently, the federal regulations distinguish between flying a drone for recreational use and for commercial use, which dictates whether registration is required.
Today, you are allowed to fly a drone for recreational use in accordance with the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 as long as:
the drone is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use;
the drone is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines;
the drone is limited to not more than 55 pounds;
the drone is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft;
the drone is flown five miles away from airports;
the drone is flown below 400 feet; and
the drone is flown within visual line sight of the operator.
Currently, the FAA does not require registration of drones used strictly for recreational use.1 A drone pilot, however, must be familiar with no-drone zones2 and mindful of privacy concerns.3
For aircraft operations in the vicinity of aerial demonstrations and major sporting events, the FAA has authority to establish Temporary Flight Restrictions (“TFRs”) to protect persons or property on the ground or in the air, to maintain air safety and efficiency, or to prevent the unsafe congestion of aircraft in the vicinity of an aerial demonstration or sporting event.4
Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 grants the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for a drone to operate safely in the National Airspace System.
Currently, this authority is being leveraged to grant case-by-case authorization for certain drone to perform commercial operations. As of November 9, 2015, the FAA granted 2,256 commercial drone petitions.5 The FAA, however, has proposed a new set of rules for commercial drones, which many expect to become law in 2016.6 Numerous companies are nervously watching to see how restrictive they are going to be, namely, Google and Amazon, who have hinted at the possibility of delivering customer orders via drone.7
Further, pursuant to the recent registration requirement, the FAA requires registration for all drones operated for non-hobby or non-recreational purposes.8 Anyone utilizing drones for commercial purposes must be mindful of this new requirement.
Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads:
So, prior to shopping the hottest deal on drones this holiday season, it is critical to identify your intended use (e.g., recreational or commercial), ensure compliance with the federal regulations cited above, and know the rules of the sky before you fly!