The next step in regulating, and potentially expanding, drone use in the U.S. hit a deadline Friday, when the Federal Aviation Administration was slated to receive recommendations on very small drones.
As consumers and the industry surge forward with ideas for what they want to do with drones, the FAA is still working on the details on how these new devices, dubbed UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) or UAS (unmanned aerial systems), will be treated.
The report due to the FAA comes from the Micro UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee, or the ARC. Its charter was to come up with recommendations for the FAA covering “micro UAS,” or drones weighing less than 4.4 pounds.
That size of drone includes everything from small, inexpensive toy drones to $3,000, film set quality flying cameras. Delivery drones would be larger.
The Senate is seeking to create regulations for larger drones that could do commercial deliveries.
The FAA has typically forbidden anyone from flying drones over people who aren’t associated with the flight, such as visitors to the cherry-blossom festival this month in Washington or at a sporting event like the Super Bowl. The concern is that a drone could lose contact with its remote operator and crash.
The ARC’s task was to consider recommendations for standards that would these very small drones to fly over people who weren’t directly participating in their operation. While the FAA was expected to receive the report Friday, it isn’t expected to make it immediately public.
The report is only a single step in a long and painstaking rule-making process, said Mark Dombroff, a partner and aviation industry expert at Dentons law firm in McLean, Va.
It comes just one day after a split in the Small UAV Coalition, which had contained almost all the major drone manufactures and large tech companies involved in drones.
The more consumer-facing wing of the coalition, China-based DJI, French-based Parrot, San Mateo, Calif.-based GoPro and Berkeley, Calif.-based 3DR, pulled out of the coalition on Thursday.
While still tightly aligned with the coalition on big issues, the break-away companies plan to create a still-unnamed group to very specifically focus on consumer issues, said GoPro spokesman Jeff Brown.
To a certain extent it represents a split between companies keen on doing beyond line of sight work and everyone else, said Colin Snow, a drone analyst with Skylogic Research.
Google, Amazon, Intel and other major companies remain in the coalition. Their focus has been on delivery and long-range flight for things like inspecting railways or energy pipelines. That’s a much longer road, as there’s no federal regulation covering such drone uses today, Snow said.
‘AT KITTY HAWK WITH WRIGHT BROTHERS’
The drone world will see a constant stream of development and events in the next few years, said Dombroff.
“It’s very exciting. We’re there at Kitty Hawk with the Wright brothers. I’m not sure people really appreciate this. We’re watching and participating in the development and growth of a whole new segment of the aviation industry,” he said.
The commercial drone industry only really started in the last three or so years, making it very new and still finding its way.
“I’m not sure that many of the companies, even the most sophisticated ones, knew what their place was in the business,” he said.
Waiting for regulations to be created by the federal government, with its slow and careful focus on safety, has been frustrating to some of the players, especially because airspace is a very different realm from the tech arenas.
“You had an influx of companies who had never been in the regulated world of aviation — and it’s a very highly regulated world,” he said.