Drones are everywhere. They're on track to be a multi-billion dollar business over the next five years. They cover a range of sizes and applications, from toys to consumer level camera platforms to sophisticated platforms designed for filmmaking, agriculture, and industrial scale mapping and inspection.
Hardly a day passed this summer when there wasn't a new report of drones interfering with firefighters, coming too close to commercial aircraft, or someone deciding it was in their rights to shoot one down.
Combined with the Federal Aviation Administration’s concerns that over one million of them will be sold this holiday season, and you have a recipe for reactionary and unrealistic rulemaking.
During Monday's press conference, the FAA announced that it would require all drones sold in the US to be registered. Ambitiously, officials state that they plan to have worked through all the attendent issues (such as what constitutes a toy and what constitutes a drone) in time to roll out a streamlined registration portal by December.
This is both unrealistic and backwards.
Let me premise this by saying that my day job is in the life sciences. It's a conservative industry with clear rules and regulations, which exist for good reason. I'm pro-regulation and skeptical of disruption for the sake of disruption. A mandatory registration requirement, with the express purpose of helping law enforcement crack down on people who violate the law, without first defining what those laws are is far more stifling than creating even an onerous regulatory regime. The lack of clarity about what laws apply to whom and where will create confusion, and I fear, discourage UAV use by anyone who can't afford a lawyer on retainer.
I can't speak to commercial UAV pilots concerns personally. I've been of the mind that I would explore flying commercially when final rules were released. But what about recreational pilots? What about the teenager, or her dad, who gets a drone for Christmas. The rules there are more lax, but somewhat more ambigious.
For example, per the FAA's Know Before You Fly website, one cannot fly within 5 miles of an airport without first contacting air traffic control, although here in Boston that doesn't seem to stop anyone.
This is definitely within five miles of Logan – 3MGBoston
No Fly Zones
Airmap.io is a simple CartoDB based map that lets you check to see what flight restrictions exist where you happen to be at the time. This, along with the FAA's Temporary Flight Restriction/Notice to Airman (TFR/NOTAM) map and aeronautical charts, is an excellent resource to be fairly certain that you won't fall afoul of the law.
I say fairly certain because the draft nature of the proprosed rules leaves a lot of room for interpretation by state and local lawmakers, and even more leeway for local law enforcement.
Class B airspace isn't mentioned by the FAA, though the legality is somewhat unclear. Last year, in a complaint written against a drone hobbyest who had flown his drone in Midtown Manhatten, the FAA suggested that one of the reasons fines were being levied against him was his flying in Class B airspace:
“You violated the following section(s) of the Federal Aviation Regulations:
- Section 91.13(a), which states that no person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.
- Section 91.131(a)(1), which states that no person may operate an aircraft within a Class B airspace area except in compliance with 91.129 and the following rules: The operator must receive an ATC clearance from the ATC facility having jurisdiction for that area before operating an aircraft in that area.”`
This lack of clarity leaves responsible recreational drone pilots in a gray area.
Confusing Scenario #1 – Class B Airspace, Approaches, & Victor Enroutes
Early this autumn, Faine and I drove down to the Quincy Quarries Reservation. Our plan was to shoot imagery for 3D modeling and mapping. We were well outside of the 5 mile radius of Logan, we were still within Class B airspace. Upon arrival, we observed several uncomfortably close, low flying passenger aircraft heading over us towards Boston Logan International Airport. Checking the aeronautical charts we realized we were under a low-altitude airway, and out of an abundance of caution and a distinct lack of interest in being a news story, we declined to fly.
At issue here isn't whether or not we should have flown. We made the right choice. The bigger issue is one of knowledge. We are aware of these issues because it's Faine's job to do so. The average recreational pilot may not be, and not through any fault of their own, but because the FAA's Know Before You Fly campaign, which works with manufacturers to include safety literature in a drone's packaging, fails to mention this in all but the vaguest terms. Had we driven up at a time when there weren't any jets lined up for approach, we might very well have decided to fly.
While the Know Before You Fly website makes no mention of Class B Airspace, drone lawyer Greg McNeal says that the FAA's rule making can be interpreted as requiring pilots to notify nearby airport towers before they fly if they're within Class B airspace. This confusion leaves the burden of assessing whether it’s safe to fly on the pilot. While a responsible pilot will likely be conservative in their decision making, the fuzzy nature of the FAA’s wording does nothing to stop those who are unaware they might be too close to a low-altitude flight path or an airport approach.
In parts of Class B airspace, the minimum ceiling extends all the way to the surface. There are also defined low-altitude airways in the national aeronautical system. A Victor enroute is a low altitude enroute, an airway which can be up to 8NM wide and can have a minimum ceiling of 1200 ft MSL. Per the FAA, within these airways, aircraft are required to be seperated by 1000 ft vertically and 5 miles laterally. A drone flying under the legal limit of 400' can potentially violate that vertical seperation rule.
Confusing Scenario #2 – Head of the Charles Regatta
On Sunday, I went down to the Head of the Charles Regatta here in Boston. A college buddy was rowing, and I hadn't seen the race since I was a participant in it in 2003. Before heading over, I googled around to see if there were any explicit bans on drone use at the event. None turned up, but I did find a pair of drone videos someone shot of the race. I also checked for NOTAMs/TFRs, and was able to reassure myself that the area where I would be was outside of Logan's five mile notification zone. Feeling pretty confident that I would be in the clear so long as I avoided congested areas, I headed over and brought a Phantom 3 Professional with me.
And then there is this, from last year's race: Row2k – Head of the Charles
Upon arrival, my rowing friend told me that USA Rowing has a fairly strict drone policy. I'm not sure how much authority they actually have here, but they don't want people flying without express persmission and I figured it wise to not fly. Nevertheless, I had the DJI Box with me and no place to leave it, so I carried it with me while I took to the shoreline to watch the races. This act by itself was deemed enough to warrent no less than four Massachusetts State Troopers descending on me at once to inform me that the area around the racecourse was an FAA No Fly Zone and that they needed to see my ID to ensure that I wouldn't fly later. The trouble was, there was no No Fly Zone to speak of. Certainly there was no NOTAM in place for the race, and certainly not judging by the little manned crop-duster buzzing the course pulling a "Supreme Liquor" advertisement. One of the officers explicitly cited the FAA ban on flying over NFL games as the reason drones were forbidden. While I'm not a lawyer, this justification is probably wrong.
!FDC 4/3621 FDC PART 1 OF 3 SPECIAL SECURITY NOTICE SPORTING EVENTS. THIS NOTAM REPLACES FDC NOTAM 9/5151 TO REFLECT A TRANSPORTATION SECURITY ADMINISTRATION (TSA) WEBSITE UPDATE AND ADDITIONAL INFORMATION CONCERNING AIRSPACE WAIVERS. FLIGHT RESTRICTIONS IN THIS NOTAM COMPLY WITH STATUTORY MANDATES DETAILED IN SECTION 352 OF PUBLIC LAW
108-7AS AMENDED BY SECTION 521 OF PUBLIC LAW 108-199. PURSUANT TO 49 USC 40103(B), THE FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION (FAA) CLASSIFIES THE AIRSPACE DEFINED IN THIS NOTAM AS 'NATIONAL DEFENSE AIRSPACE'. ANY PERSON WHO KNOWINGLY OR WILLFULLY VIOLATES THE RULES PERTAINING TO OPERATIONS IN THIS AIRSPACE MAY BE SUBJECT TO CERTAIN CRIMINAL PENALTIES UNDER 49 USC 46307. PILOTS WHO DO NOT ADHERE TO THE FOLLOWING PROCEDURES MAY BE INTERCEPTED, DETAINED AND INTERVIEWED BY LAW ENFORCEMENT/SECURITY PERSONNEL. PURSUANT TO 14 CFR SECTION 99.7, SPECIAL SECURITY INSTRUCTIONS, COMMENCING ONE HOUR BEFORE THE SCHEDULED TIME OF THE EVENT UNTIL ONE HOUR AFTER THE END OF THE EVENT. ALL AIRCRAFT OPERATIONS; INCLUDING PARACHUTE JUMPING, UNMANNED AIRCRAFT AND REMOTE CONTROLLED AIRCRAFT, ARE PROHIBITED WITHIN A 1410271420-PERM END PART 1 OF 3
!FDC 4/3621 FDC PART 2 OF 3 SPECIAL 3NMR UP TO AND INCLUDING 3000FT AGL OF ANY STADIUM HAVING A SEATING CAPACITY OF 30,000 OR MORE PEOPLE WHERE EITHER A REGULAR OR POST SEASON MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL, NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE, OR NCAA DIVISION ONE FOOTBALL GAME IS OCCURRING. THIS NOTAM ALSO APPLIES TO NASCAR SPRINT CUP, INDY CAR, AND CHAMP SERIES RACES EXCLUDING QUALIFYING AND PRE-RACE EVENTS. FLIGHTS CONDUCTED FOR OPERATIONAL PURPOSES OF ANY EVENT, STADIUM OR VENUE AND BROADCAST COVERAGE FOR THE BROADCAST RIGHTS HOLDER ARE AUTHORIZED WITH AN APPROVED AIRSPACE WAIVER. AN FAA AIRSPACE WAIVER DOES NOT RELIEVE OPERATORS FROM OBTAINING ALL OTHER NECESSARY AUTHORIZATIONS AND COMPLYING WITH ALL APPLICABLE FEDERAL AVIATION REGULATIONS. THE RESTRICTIONS DESCRIBED ABOVE DO NOT APPLY TO THOSE AIRCRAFT AUTHORIZED BY AND IN CONTACT WITH ATC FOR OPERATIONAL OR SAFETY OF FLIGHT PURPOSES, DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, LAW ENFORCEMENT, AND AIR AMBULANCE FLIGHT OPERATIONS. ALL PREVIOUSLY ISSUED WAIVERS TO FDC NOTAM 9/5151 REMAIN VALID UNTIL THE SPECIFIED END DATE BUT NOT TO EXCEED 90 DAYS FOLLOWING THE EFFECTIVE DATE OF THIS NOTAM. INFORMATION ABOUT AIRSPACE WAIVER APPLICATIONS 1410271420-PERM END PART 2 OF 3
!FDC 4/3621 FDC PART 3 OF 3 SPECIAL AND TSA SECURITY AUTHORIZATIONS CAN BE FOUND AT HTTP://WWW.TSA.GOV/STAKEHOLDERS/AIRSPACE-
WAIVERS-0OR BY CALLING TSA AT 571-227-2071. SUBMIT REQUESTS FOR FAA AIRSPACE WAIVERS AT HTTPS://WAIVERS.FAA.GOV. 1410271420-PERM END PART 3 OF 3
I wasn't going to argue the point there and while they were likely wrong, the officers involved were all very polite. However, it did spur an interesting conversation on twitter with the aforementioned Greg McNeal. He cited a number of places local jurisdictions may have differing interpretations of the rules surrounding UAVs, and where FAA requirements could be read to require airport notification and tower approval within controlled airspace.
Needless to say, while it's strange that simply carrying the box justified such an aggressive police response, I understand that local law enforcement is likely just as confused as I am about the FAA rules. No one really wants to establish what the boundaries and proper interpretation are by the unpleasant means of a court case. Certainly not your average recreational flyer or anyone without the substantial means required to do so. Until the FAA issues final rules, such a registration policy simply invites abitrary enforcement, post hoc rationalization of sanctions, and will ultimately undermine the burgeoning drone industry in the United States or the FAA's attempts to regulate them.
Requiring drone registration and licensing is probably a good idea in the long-term. In fact, in time, requiring drones to carry transponders to operate in controlled airspace is probably a good idea. However, these are steps that should be taken after the government has clearly established the boundaries of where and how UAV pilots may fly and who has the authority to restrict their use. Without these, if the industry grows as quickly as the FAA fears, the lack of established rules will only lead to more confusion, more incidents, and more polarization.