The skies are changing: The FAA does a bunch of things to make the drone business grow up

The Federal Aviation Administration has been busy these last few weeks, promulgating a bunch of different rules that have some consequences — short-term and long-term — for us as drone journalists.

Each of these changes taken alone is something small. Taken together, we’re seeing the ongoing codification of how drones interact with the National Airspace System. And that’s probably not a bad thing as the demands on that airspace increase.

Let’s take a look:

Change 1: The Labeling Provision

As of Feb. 23, all registered drones (that’s any drone registered with the FAA, which should be any drone that weights more than 0.55 pounds, which should be every media drone) must have the registration number displayed on the outside of the drone. Previously, the label could be in the battery compartment.

The change itself isn’t bad — it indicates that the FAA feels that the registration number database is secure enough that numbers can be publicly displayed. Originally, numbers were allowed in the battery compartment when the FAA thought people who took offense to drones would see the registration numbers on the outside, go to a publicly available database, look up the number and go hunting for the owner. The rationale behind the change, however, is ridiculous: Numbers need to be on the outside because the battery compartment might be booby-trapped. Got that? A drone owner takes the time to register his or her own drone and then weaponizes it. Then they set an explosive to go off if the drone is downed by anti-drone technology and first responders remove the battery to see whom the drone is registered to.

Two things are notable in this situation: 1) That’s the national security justification the FAA used to push the rule through. The FAA went around its normal rule-making process — which is allowed by law — because of the national security justification. This was, apparently, a matter of grave concern. And 2) the FAA thinks there isn’t a risk to drone operators who can be identified and threatened.

Change 2: Introduction of proposed rules to make it easier to fly over people and at night

While less immediate — implementation here is 12 to 18 months out — this is a big one. There’s a lot of stuff in the proposed rules that have a real effect on what we do as drone journalists.

Let’s start with the big one first: flights over people. The current rule is that you can’t fly over people who are not directly involved in the operation of the drone or are located under cover or are in a stationary vehicle. This would change that by allowing flights under certain conditions.

The conditions are set by the type of drone. A Category 1 drone is less than 0.55 pounds and the FAA rule would allow any drone under that weight to fly over people without any further modifications. There’s already a class of drones that fits this category, called Cinema FPV drones. Many already weigh under the 0.55 pound limit. We’ve seen increasing use of these tiny, fast drones in movies where small size and maneuverability matter the most. If this rule-making passes as proposed, we’d see an expansion into this market — and likely significant increases in camera quality and flight controls.

A Category 2 drone is one that qualifies under different conditions — not just weight. Manufacturers would develop and certify drones that, if they crashed into a person, would be below a specified severity level. The FAA uses the example of making a slower, larger drone that would transfer less energy to the person it crashed into. Or using a drone held together by magnets, which is how CNN’s drone group convinced the FAA to get a waiver to fly over people two years ago. Part of the proposed rule requires the drone’s propellers to not cut someone, which could be achieved by having propeller guards or creating propellers made of a material such as foam. 

The third category of drones allows for a higher chance of injury, but limits the exposure to injury through how the drone is used. It would still require the drone to be designed to not hurt someone on impact, but the drone could move at a faster speed or be made of different materials (if you want to get all engineering on this, these drones could transfer 25 foot-pounds of kinetic energy on impact, as opposed to 11 foot-pounds for a Category 2 drone). The FAA would impose additional limits on this: The drone couldn’t fly over an open-air assembly of people (so not at the Rose Bowl Parade, for instance); it would have to be at or within a closed restricted access site and anyone within that site would have to be notified the drone could fly over them. The manufacturer would have to show proof of construction compliance for its drone to be certified a Category 3 drone.

The shift to allowing night flights is another change. Getting a night flight waiver now is not complicated — pilots just have to explain their safety and mitigation measures to the FAA. For instance, the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s waiver requires multiple visual observers and giving each visual observer a written quiz on the hazards of flying at night before each night flight, as well as having anti-collision lights on the drone). Under the FAA’s proposed rule, a pilot would now just have to complete “knowledge and training requirements” — figure an online course and quiz — and mount anti-collision lights on the drone.

The proposed rulemaking also creates several more types of waivers. The most significant for journalists is a waiver that would allow flight over moving vehicles. So a news outlet’s drone could fly over traffic to get shots of a traffic accident, for example. Other than losing visual sight of the drone, this is likely the most violated current Part 107 prohibition. Acknowledging that, and requiring mitigation measures, is a wise move.

And then there’s an authority move: Under the original Part 107 rules, remote pilots in charge did not have to present their registration or operator certificates to anyone other than an FAA official. A proposed change in the rule requires presentation of credentials to anyone from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Transportation Security Administration or any law enforcement officer. That last one is a big change as it’s the first step in acknowledging that local governments could have a voice in managing the airspace over their land.

Change 3: More restricted facilities

The FAA announced last month that it was adding additional facilities to its “restricted because of security concerns” list for drones. The list is made up of federal prisons, ammunition plants and a few defense facilities. The restrictions make sense — the military is worried about drones flying over places such as Fort Detrick, Maryland, where the Army does infectious disease research — and likely won’t have a direct effect on what we do as journalists. Except there’s a potential downstream effect: DJI, the world’s largest drone maker and the drone maker of choice for most American media outlets, has its own unlocking system. You have to show permission to fly in some areas for DJI to unlock the drone. And it’s an imperfect system (the maps that define the areas can be, shall we say, generous in their parameters). There are mistaken limits even in non-restricted areas. Adding more restricted areas makes more errors possible.

This all adds up to a change in how the FAA views drone use of the National Airspace. The  FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 was the first attempt by the FAA to strictly regulate airspace use by drones. It shifted many of the testing and registration requirements expected of commercial drone operators into the hobby community. The labeling rule and the proposed new rules are more evidence that the regulators are trying to bring an industry with a pioneer mentality into a much more mature space. 


Comments are closed.