The FAA Wants Your Input On Upcoming Drone Regs

Earlier this week, the US Department of Transportation announced registration would be required for unmanned aerial systems. Yes, drones will be regulated, and right now representatives from the Academy of Model Aircraft, the Air Line Pilots Association, the Consumer Electronics Association and others are deciding which quadcopters, planes, and other aircraft should be exempt from registration.

Now, the US DOT and FAA are looking for consumer’s input. The US DOT is asking the public such questions as:

  • Should registration happen at point-of-sale, or after the box is opened?
  • Should registration be dependant on serial numbers? If so, how will kits be registered?
  • Should certain drones/UAS be excluded from registration? Should weight, speed, maximum altitude, or flight times be taken into account?
  • Should registration require a fee?
  • Are there any additional ways of encouraging accountability of drone/UAS use?

Comments will be taken until November 6, with the task force assembled by the US DOT providing its regulations by November 20. The hope for all involved parties is that this system of regulation will be in place for the holiday season. One million UAS are expected to be sold by Christmas.

FAA Suggests $1.9M Civil Penalty Against Aerial Photography Company

An October 6th Press Release from the FAA states that SkyPan International, a Chicago based aerial photography company conducted 65 unauthorized operations over a 2+ year period resulting in a $1.9M penalty. This is by far the most severe penalty the FAA has proposed, the previous leader being $18,700 against Xizmo Media which was issued in September.

SkyPan International isn’t your suburban neighbor’s spoiled brat kid who flies his new octocopter through the neighborhood with his HD camera running in hopes to catch…well, you get the idea. SkyPan has been in the aerial photography game for 27 years and was awarded a Section 333 Exemption from the blanket ban of commercial UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) operation from the FAA  in 2015. They also proactively contacted the FAA in 2005, 2008, and 2010 to discuss and suggest technical regulatory parameters. The seemingly civil history between the two entities leaves things in a confusing state, which seems to be par for the course when it comes to UAS.

In case you missed it, we also covered the announcement by the US DOT requiring drone registration.


Breaking: Drone Registration Will Be Required Says US DoT

Today, the US Department of Transportation announced that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will require registration in the future.

The announcement is not that UAS, quadcopters, or drones would be required to be registered immediately. This announcement is merely that a task force of representatives from the UAS industry, drone manufacturers, and manned aviation industries would provide recommendations to the Department of Transportation for what types of aircraft would require registration. The task force is expected to develop these recommendations and deliver a report by November 20.

A Short History of FAA Model Aircraft Regulation

Introduced in 1981, AC 91-57 was the model aircraft operating standards for more than 30 years. This standard suggested that model pilots not fly higher than 400 feet, and to notify a flight service station or control tower when flying within three miles of an airport.

The FAA Modernization And Reform Act Of 2012 (PDF) required the FAA to create a set of rules for unmanned aerial systems, however the FAA is expressly forbidden from, ‘promulgating any rule or regulation regarding model aircraft.’ The key term being, ‘model aircraft’. This term was defined by the FAA as being, “an unmanned aircraft that is capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere; flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and flown for hobby or recreational purposes.” Anything outside of this definition was an unmanned aerial system, and subject to FAA regulations.

While this definition of model aircraft would have been fine for the 1980s, technology has advanced since then. FPV flying, or putting a camera and video transmitter on a quadcopter, is an extraordinarily popular hobby now, and because it is not ‘line of sight’, it is outside the definition of ‘model aircraft’.

This interpretation has not seen a great deal of countenance from the model aircraft community; FPV flying is seen as a legitimate hobby and even a sport. The entire domain of model aircraft aviation is expanding, and the hobby has never been as popular as it is now.

The Safety of Model Aviation

The issue of drone regulation focuses nearly entirely on the safety of airways in the United States; model aviators flying within five miles of an airport must ask the airport or control tower for permission to fly. To that end, the FAA created the B4UFLY app that takes the trouble out of reading sectional charts and checking up on the latest NOTAMs and TFRs.

However, the FAA is increasingly concerned with drones, multicopters, and model aircraft. In a report issued last summer, the FAA cited a marked increase in the number of ‘close calls’ between manned aircraft and model aircraft. The Academy of Model Aeronautics went over this data and found a different story: only 3.5% of sightings were ‘close calls’ or ‘near misses’. The FAA data is questionable – the reports cited include a drone flying at 51,000 feet over Washington DC. Not only is this higher than any civilian passenger aircraft capable of flying, the ability for any civilian remote-controlled aircraft to operate at this altitude is questionable at best.

Nevertheless, the requirement for registration has been greatly influenced by the perceived concerns of regulators for mid-air collisions.

What exactly will require registration?

The group of industry representatives responsible for delivering the recommendations to the Department of Transportation will take into account what aircraft should be exempt from registration due to a low safety risk. Most likely, small toy quadcopters will be exempt from registration; it’s difficult to fly a small Cheerson quadcopter outside anyway. Whether this will affect larger quadcopters and drones such as the DJI Phantom, or 250 class FPV racing quadcopters remains to be seen.

You Might Want To Buy A Quadcopter Now

NBC News has reported the US Government may implement regulations in the coming days that would require anyone who buys an unmanned aircraft system to register that device with the US Department of Transportation.

The most simplistic interpretation of this news is that anyone with a DJI Phantom or a model aircraft made out of Dollar Tree foam board would be required to license their toys. This may not be the case; the FAA – an agency of the US DoT – differentiates between unmanned aircraft systems and model aircraft.

This will most likely be the key thing to watch out for in any coming regulation. The FAA defines model aircraft as, “an unmanned aircraft that is capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere; flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and flown for hobby or recreational purposes.” Additionally, the FAA may not make any regulations for model aircraft. While this means planes and quads flown without FPV equipment may be left out of this regulation, anything flown ‘through a camera’ would be subject to regulation.

Let Skynet Become Self-Aware!

Not so long ago, it was hard to fly. Forget actual manned aircraft and pilots licenses; even flying model aircraft required hours of practice, often under the tutelage of a master at a flying field. But along with that training came an education in the rules of safe flight, including flying at a designated airfield and watching out for obstacles.

We accidentally messed that up. We in the drone industry made aircraft super easy to fly — perhaps too easy to fly. Thanks to smart autopilots and GPS, you can open a box, download an app and press “take off”. The copter will dutifully rise into the air and wait there for further instructions — no skill required. And it will do this even if you happen to be in an NFL football stadium in the middle of a big game. Or near an airport. Or in the midst of a forest fire.

The problem is that along with taking training out of the process of flying a drone, we inadvertently also took out the education process of learning about safe and responsible flight. Sure, we drone manufacturers include all sorts of warning and advisories in our instructions manual (which people don’t read) and our apps (which they swipe past), and companies such as DJI and my own 3DR include basic “geofencing” restrictions to try to keep operators below 400 feet and within “visual line of sight”. But it’s not enough.

Every day there are more reports of drone operators getting past these restrictions and flying near jetliners, crashing into stadiums, and interfering with first responders. So far it hasn’t ended in tragedy, but the way things are going it eventually will. And in the meantime, it’s making drones increasingly controversial and even feared. I call this epidemic of (mostly inadvertent) bad behavior “mass jackassery”. As drones go mass market, the odds of people doing dumb things with them reach the singularity of certainty.

We’ve got to do something about this before governments do it for us, with restrictions that catch the many good uses of drones in the crossfire. The reality is that most drone operators who get in trouble aren’t malicious and may not even know that what they’re doing is irresponsible or even illegal. Who can blame them? It’s devilishly hard to understand the patchwork quilt of federal, state and local regulations and guidelines, which change by the day and even the hour based on “airspace deconfliction” rules and FAA alerts written for licensed pilots and air traffic control. Many drone owners don’t even know that such rules exist.

Drones Themselves Should Know Rules of Each Area

Fortunately, they don’t have to. Our drones can be even smarter — smart enough to know where they should and shouldn’t fly. Because modern drones are connected to phones, they’re also connected to the cloud. Every time you open their app, that app can check online to find appropriate rules for flight where you are, right then and there.

Here’s how it works. The app sends four data fields to a cloud service: Who (operator identifier), What (aircraft identifier), Where (GPS and altitude position) and When (either right now or a scheduled time in the case of autonomous missions). The cloud service then returns a “red light” (flight not allowed), a “green light” (flight allowed, with basic restrictions such as a 400 feet altitude ceiling), or “yellow light” (additional restrictions or warnings, which can be explained to the operator in context and at the point of use).


Right now industry groups such as the Dronecode Foundation, the Small UAV Coalition (I help lead both of them, but this essay just reflects my own personal views) and individual manufacturers such as 3DR and DJI are working on these “safe flight” standards and APIs. Meanwhile, a number of companies such as Airmap and Skyward are building the cloud services to provide the up-to-date third-party data layer that any manufacturer can use. It will start with static no-fly zone data such as proximity to airports, US national parks and other banned airspace such as Washington DC. But it will quickly add dynamic data, too, such as forest fires, public events, and proximity to other aircraft.

(For more on this, you can read a white paper from one of the Dronecode working groups here and higher level description here.)

There’s Always a Catch

Of course, this system isn’t perfect. It’s only as good as the data it uses, which is still pretty patchy worldwide, and the ways that the manufacturers implement those restrictions. Some drone makers may choose to treat any area five miles from an airport as a hard ban and prohibit all flight in that zone, even at the cost of furious customers who had no idea they were five miles from an airport when they bought that toy at Wal-mart (nor do they think it should matter, since it’s just a “toy”). Other manufacturers may choose to make a more graduated restriction for the sake of user friendliness, adding a level of nuance that is not in the FAA regulation. They might ban, say, flight one mile from an airport, but only limit flight beyond that to something like 150ft of altitude (essentially backyard-level flying).

That’s a reasonable first step. But the ultimate safe flight system would go a lot further. It would essentially extend the international air traffic control system to millions of aircraft (there are already a million consumer drones in the air) flown by everything from children to Amazon. The only way to do that is to let the drones regulate themselves (yes, let Skynet become self-aware).

Peer-to-peer Air Traffic Control

There’s a precedent for such peer-to-peer air traffic control: WiFI. Back in the 1980s, the FCC released spectrum in the 2.4 Ghz band for unlicensed use. A decade later, the first 802.11 standards for Wifi were released, which was based on some principles that have application to drones, too.

  1. The airspace used is not otherwise occupied by commercial operators
  2. The potential for harm is low (in the case of WiFi, low transmission power. In the case of drones, low kinetic energy due to the weight restrictions of the “micro” category)
  3. The technology has the capability to self-”deconflict” the airspace by observing what else is using it and picking a channel/path that avoids collisions.

That “open spectrum” sandbox that the FCC created also created a massive new industry around WiFi. It put wireless in the hands of everyone and routed around the previous monopoly owners of the spectrum, cellphone carriers and media companies. The rest was history.

Quadcopter ThumbWe can do the same thing with drones. Let’s create an innovation “sandbox” with de minimus regulatory barriers for small UAVs flying within very constrained environments. The parameters of the sandbox could be almost anything, as long as they’re clear, but it should be kinetic energy and range based (a limit of 2kg and 20m/s at 100m altitude and 1,000m range within visual line of sight would be a good starting point).

As in the case of open spectrum, in relatively low risk applications, such as micro-drones, technology can be allowed to “self-deconflict the airspace” without the need for monopoly exclusions such as exclusive licences or regulatory permits. How? By letting the drones report their position using the same cellphone networks they used to get permission to fly in the first place. The FAA already has a standard for this, called ADS-B, which is based on transponders in each aircraft reporting their position. But those transponders are expensive and unnecessary for small drones, which already know their position and are connected to the cloud. Instead, they can use “virtual ADS-B” to report their position via their cell network connections, and that data can be injected into the same cloud data services they used to check if their flight was safe in the first place.

Once this works, we’ll have a revolution. What WiFi did the telecoms industry, autonomous, cloud-connected drones can do to the aerospace industry. We can occupy the skies, and do it safely. Technology can solve the problems it creates.

About the Author

judge-thumb-AndersonChris Anderson (@Chr1sa) is the CEO of 3D Robotics and founder of DIY Drones. From 2001 through 2012 he was the Editor in Chief of Wired Magazine. Before Wired he was with The Economist for seven years in London, Hong Kong and New York.

The author of the New York Times bestselling books The Long Tail and Free as well as the Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.

His background is in science, starting with studying physics and doing research at Los Alamos and culminating in six years at the two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science.

In his self-described misspent youth [Chris] was a bit player in the DC punk scene and amusingly, a band called REM. You can read more about that here.

Awards include: Editor of the Year by Ad Age (2005). Named to the “Time 100,” the newsmagazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world (2007). Loeb Award for Business Book of the Year (2007). Wired named Magazine of the Decade by AdWeek for his tenure (2009). Time Magazine’s Tech 40 — The Most Influential Minds In Technology (2013). Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers (2013).

No, Mounting A Gun To A Quadcopter (Probably) Isn’t Illegal

Earlier this month, [Austin Haghwout] posted a video on YouTube of a remote controlled quadcopter armed with a semiautomatic handgun. While there are no details of this build, it’s safe to say any reasonably sized quadcopter could be armed in such a manner; just strap a pistol to the frame, add a servo, and connect the servo to the RC receiver. We don’t think this is the first time it’s been done, but has garnered the most attention.

There is nothing novel about mounting a handgun to a quadcopter. Anyone with any experience with RC flying could replicate this build, and the only interesting part of watching a video of a quad firing a gun is seeing how the flight controller reacts to the recoil. However, in the pursuit of the exploitation of a fear of technology, this video has gone viral.

The Verge calls it, ‘totally illegal’, while The Christian Science Monitor asks how it is legal. Wired posits it is, ‘most likely illegal,’ while CNET suggests, ‘surely this isn’t legal.’ In a rare break from reality, YouTube commentors have demonstrated a larger vocabulary than normal, calling the build, ‘felonious.’

With so many calling this build illegal, there should be someone who could point out the laws or regulation [Austin Haghwout] is violating. This information is surprisingly absent. In a Newsweek post, a representative from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is quoted as saying:

“ATF has reviewed the video with local law enforcement and other federal agencies. It does not appear that the device violates any existing firearms regulations…”

The Associated Press reports no state laws were broken by [Austin]. With the BAFTE and Connecticut State Police both signing off on this build, the issue of jurisdiction becomes more pronounced. How, exactly, is a gun mounted on a quad illegal?

The answer, as with all things involving quadcopters, comes from the FAA. We could find no regulations explicitly banning handguns on remote controlled quadcopters, but of all stories and posts on [Austin]’s handiwork, this is the closest anyone has come to providing the framework for calling this build illegal:

No pilot in command of a civil aircraft may allow any object to be dropped from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property. However, this section does not prohibit the dropping of any object if reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property.

-FAR Part 91 Sec. 91.15

That’s it. The closest anyone has come to providing a reason why a semiauto quadcopter is illegal: because the cartridge (and bullet), are ‘dropped’ from a quad. The Feds charging [Austin] with “dropping” a bullet from a quadcopter is like taking down [Al Capone] for Income Tax Evasion. The difference being that [Al] was a notorious criminal who had obviously harmed a large swath of people and [Austin] doesn’t seem to be harming anyone.

Although [Austin]’s video of a gun toting quad is only fourteen seconds long, a few reasonable assumptions can be made about his small experiment in flying firepower. The video shows the quad hovering a few feet above the ground. This is surely allowed by the recently published safety guidelines for sUAS users. The gun itself appears to be firing into an offscreen hillside – a sensible precaution. If the only justification for the FAA’s investigation of [Austin]’s video is FAR 91.15, he’s on easy street.

“Drones” Endanger Airborne Wildfire Fighting

usdaThere is no denying that personal drones are in the public eye these days. Unfortunately they tend to receive more negative press than positive. This past weekend, there were news reports of a wildfire in California. Efforts to fight the fire were hampered when no less than five drones were spotted flying in the area. Some reports even stated that two of the drones followed the firefighting aircraft as they returned to local airports. This is the fourth time this month firefighting planes have been grounded due to unmanned aircraft in the area. It’s not a new problem either, I’ve subscribed to a google alert on the word “Drone” for over a year now, and it is rare for a week to go by without a hobby drone flying somewhere they shouldn’t.

The waters are muddied by the fact that mass media loves a good drone story. Any pilotless vehicle is now a drone, much to the chagrin of radio control enthusiasts who were flying before the Wright brothers. In this case there were two fields relatively close to the action – Victor Valley R/C Park, about 10 miles away, and the Cajun Pass slope flying field, which overlooks the section of I-15 that burned. There are claims on the various R/C forums and subreddits that it may have been members from either of those groups who were mistaken as drones in the flight path. Realistically though, Victor Valley is too far away. Furthermore, anyone at the Cajun pass flying site would have been fearing for their own safety. Access requires a drive through 3 miles of dirt road just to reach the site. Not a place you’d want to be trapped by a wildfire for sure. Who or whatever was flying that day is apparently lying low for the moment – but the problem persists.

Rules and Regulations

In the USA, the FAA rules are (finally) relatively clear for recreational drone operations. The layman version can be found on the website, which was put together by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), and other groups in partnership with the FAA.

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