Pressures are mounting for everyone involved in the unmanned aircraft systems industry, as increasingly severe penalties and new registration requirements force recreational and commercial users of UAS to adapt to evolving laws and regulations.
With a recent $1.9 million penalty levied for improper drone use, together with the FAA’s anticipated registration requirements, those who fly drones for business or pleasure may find that failure to follow the evolving rules can have severe consequences.
Close calls with aircraft continue to expose a significant public safety concern. According to one source, by mid-year 2015 there were more than 700 reports of pilots citing close calls with UAS – triple the number of incidents in 2014. As a result, the law of the sky is in flux with the Federal Aviation Administration scrambling to implement a registration system and rules that promote responsible use of drones, while demanding accountability from those who don’t follow those rules.
In February, there were around 20 Section 333 exemptions (the FAA authorization to fly UAS for commercial purposes). It is clear that the FAA has devoted many of its resources to this technology, as there are more than 2,200 exemptions only nine months later.
Meanwhile, consumer drones are expected to be in high demand for the 2015 holiday shopping season, with some sources estimating 700,000 will be sold in 2015 alone. Recreational and hobby users are not exempt from UAS requirements and risks.
If you are giving or receiving a drone as a holiday gift, visit KnowBeforeYouFly.org to get familiar with basic rules of operation before taking to the skies. The FAA is even collaborating with the National Football League to get the word out, through a public advocacy message on YouTube.
An increasing number of commercial and hobby users means increased risk to commercial and general aviation, which explains the FAA’s urgency in creating systems that allow users to be identified and monitored.
What will be done to mitigate risks posed by UAS?
The current approach appears to be two-fold: 1) publishing rules regarding registration, licensing and operation, and 2) severe penalties coupled with more robust enforcement. Not only has the FAA quickly scaled the above-mentioned Section 333 exemption process, but it’s also launching a registration system.
In November, the FAA assembled a task force to develop UAS registration requirements. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta set the stage for the task force meetings with a comment that should resonate with anyone who understands the importance of blending proactive risk management with reasonable freedom for technology to advance.
“There’s no single solution for how we do this,” Huerta said. “The integration of unmanned aircraft is multi-faceted, and our approach must be as nimble as the technology itself.”
On Nov. 21 an FAA press release identified that this task force delivered its recommendations to the FAA, and that the FAA will present recommendations to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. One report from a task force member suggests the FAA would like to implement a registration system within the next 30 days, and that the system could be a fairly simple process, and may even occur online.
Increasing enforcement, penalties for past acts
Noteworthy FAA enforcement actions against drone operators have been few and far between. We’ve evolved from a proposed $10,000 fine against Raphael Pirker to a proposed $1.9M fine against SkyPan (which the FAA announced in October).
The SkyPan penalty should catch the attention of all commercial UAS operators, as it is focused on the past acts of SkyPan (specifically, 65 unauthorized flights from March 2013 through December 2014). Unlike the “free pass” a speeding driver might receive if the speeding violation wasn’t caught in real time, an operator of an improper UAS flight may be penalized after the flight.
It’s increasingly evident that anyone who wants to fly drones recreationally will need to understand basic rules of safe operation and recognize that registration and insurance requirements are evolving. At the same time, commercial and business users have a greater level of responsibility and accountability. Organizations and businesses that use UAS should be particularly familiar with UAS registration requirements and the changing set of laws and regulations that govern your use.
To reiterate the remarks of the FAA administrator, the UAS technology is indeed nimble. All of us, whether businesses, regulators, consumers or advisers involved in the UAS industry, must be responsive and pragmatic in our efforts to balance the overlapping and often competing interests of the UAS industry.
Brad Boyd, an attorney at Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Fafinski Mark & Johnson, practices within the firm’s unmanned aircraft systems group as well as its real estate and corporate groups. The advice and viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the author. He can be reached at email@example.com.