Innovation

FAA drops the hammer on drones, but specifics about regulations remain up in the air

Yesterday, the FAA announced that all drones will be subject to registration and regulation. But how this will be carried out, and what it means for businesses, is still unclear.

Image: Sarah Tew/CNET

In a press conference on Monday, US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said that non-commercial drones will be subject to the same registration and regulation as commercially-operated unmanned aircrafts.

The move, according to Foxx, addresses the surge in the number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) currently populating our airspace—there are twice as many reported drone sightings by pilots this year as in 2014, he said. While military drones have been the subject of debate, drones have a host of other uses as well.Businesses like Facebook, Amazon Prime, and Google are already using drones for data collection using video streaming, deliveries, and other services. City governments—in Somerville, MA, for example—have used aerial footage from drones to aid in snow removal efforts. And unmanned aircraft are used in a range of other ways, from producing films to monitoring wildlife.

Businesses like Facebook, Amazon Prime, and Google are already using drones for data collection using video streaming, deliveries, and other services. City governments—in Somerville, MA, for example—have used aerial footage from drones to aid in snow removal efforts. And unmanned aircraft are used in a range of other ways, from producing films to monitoring wildlife.Many smaller businesses are considering taking the leap into using unmanned aircrafts as well. Businesses, Gerald Van Hoy, Senior Research Analyst in drones for Gartner said, have a lot to gain from using drones. "If you just look at drones as a platform for delivery or remote sensing, and nothing else, there's a huge potential for this kind of technology. It's wide and vast and should be huge on the commercial side." He offered roof inspection as an example. "If you keep a guy off a ladder and off a roof, that's a pretty good thing," Van Hoy said. "Insurance rates could go down. Customers are getting a better end result, companies only spend resources on things that pan out, you can do more roof inspections in less time."

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How Companies Use Drones
Image: Forrester Research

The problem, said Van Hoy, is that "the longer it takes for the FAA to come up with a set of rules, the longer it takes for the bulk of mainstream companies who are thinking of applying the technology."

The specific FAA regulations are still unclear at this point—a task force is being assembled to collect recommendations by November 20th. "A lot of companies are waiting for a clear set of regulations before they jump in," said Van Hoy. "You don't want to spend a bunch of money on a drone program for your company and then find out you need to modify your plan based on the new regulations."

The primary issue in terms of regulations, according to Van Hoy, should not be related to use—he called the latest announcement a "common-sense approach." Instead, the FAA should be concerned about size of the aircraft. According to Van Hoy, there will be a million new drones by December—what we need to do is decide what, exactly, should fall in this category. "We need to come up with a micro-drone category," he said. "Drones under a certain weight, like 4 pounds, that can't fly more than 16 mph, and can't go above 400 feet on its own, shouldn't be bothered with." The new announcement, he thinks, "is more about lip service to a scared populace that has just seen a lot of hyped up news about near misses, and less about how they'll go about doing this. The FAA is already overwhelmed—why do they want to start tracking a million-plus drones?

Moving forward, Van Hoy thinks, the FAA should consider how, exactly, the registration process will work, what the requirements will be for registration—what to do about third-party sales on Craigslist, for example, and how a database of members will be kept.

"These are exactly the kinds of questions the task force will be looking at," said Ian Gregor, Public Affairs Manager for the FAA. "We are looking to make the registration process as streamlined as possible."

Nevertheless, these questions remain unanswered. Monday's FAA announcement serves as a clear indication that drones are increasingly becoming woven into our lives, with advances in unmanned aircraft technology outpacing the systems in place to manage and control it. For now, we only know that drones will be tightly regulated, we just don't know how. Look for more TechRepublic coverage at the end of November.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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