For some time, there has been and continues to be frustration in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules on small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS). To review the terminology, we refer to a "drone" as the object that is flying in the air. A UAS implies there is more to this than simply the drone; it's a system of technology with a ground-based operator. On the show, I presented the question about FAA UAS regulation, and that was "what is recreational?":
"I mean, that's one of the rules that says that you can fly under 400 feet away from built-up areas, away from airports, but it's not so clear as what recreation really is. Is that what a nonprofit is when they're trying to collect drone journalism? Is that what a organization who is trying to advocate for animals -- Is that what they're doing when they're flying a drone over a pigeon shoot in South Carolina? And so it is kind of debatable, and it's not really codified into any regulation at this point. "
I'll explain. The FAA regulations as they are today provide a space for recreational drones to operate without special certification, and requires special certification for civilian commercial drones. Those UAS must operate under 400 feet and away from built-up areas and airports.
But where do nonprofit, advocacy, and education lie on that recreational-commercial spectrum? Nowhere does the FAA provide a deffinition for recreation. Some university researchers have been told they need a COA (Certificate of Authorization) to operate their experimental drones for educational purposes, which often times take months to process. Additionally, the FAA will not grant any certificate to anyone operating a drone for profit.
After the show, I received a call from a reporter for a broadcast industry magazine, and I told him that it had been five years since the FAA regulations, and I didn't expect any regulations until the 2015 deadline. He sounded shocked, and asked for clarification.
Five years ago, on February 13, 2007, FAA issued a decree, or "Notice of Policy," in the (Docket No. FAA–2006–25714; Notice No. 07–01) which essentially shut down all civil operation of drones (other than recreational/model activity) in the United States.
That Notice of Policy for Unmanned Aircraft Systems said that in order to pilot a drone for anything but a recreational purpose, you need to obtain an airworthiness certificate in an experimental category for your UAS. This certification just the same as any other experimental aircraft, and is required regardless if you were going to fly your UAS under the exact same restrictions as recreational UAS: fly under 400 feet and away from "built-up areas." Even with this certification, you cannot fly the drone for commercial purposes (which would include commercial media).
More than a year later on April 10, 2008, the FAA issued another decree. This established a small UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to "conduct a formal safety analysis of small UAS, and then promulgate federal regulations for their design, operation and registration." What came out of that ARC? I don't know.
Patrick Egan, from Remote Control Aerial Photography Association (RCAPA), was on that committee and said there was a "lack of comprehensive action." According to RCAPA president Rick Connolly, who Egan interviewed for sUASnews.com, "Even the members that were part of the process feel nothing came of it and all their hard work was put in the circular file."
Then, in June, a new ARC (ARC 2.0) was created. sUAS News had to file a FOIA request to find out who was on the rulemaking committee and what its charter was. This time around, the ARC seems to be dominated by those. Of the 22 committee members who are not from the FAA, 11 are defense contractors, and there is only one who potentially represents the non-defense commercial drone industry. This has generated a level of skepticism and criticism from RCAPA and other commercial and recreational drone groups.
Some news reports said that proposed rules would come out of ARC 2.0 by December 2011. That never happened.
More than a year ago, the FAA grounded the multicopters of the media company MI6 Films, and told the news website The Daily that it could not longer use drones for its reporting. Meanwhile, ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, is now flying its own news drone, and MI6 has since found work in other countries. Australia had rules governing UAVs on the books since 2002. The inability to create a space for commercial drones is hampering not just journalism, but innovation that could spark economic growth in a time of economic stagnation.
As I said on the radio show, the FAA has a tremendous burden on its shoulders. It has to make the national airspace safe, and it has to protect people on the ground from harm. That responsibility should not be taken lightly. However, that does not make the delays any less frustrating. And it does not make any less confusing the fact that you need special certification for a craft used for commercial or educational purposes, while the exact same craft can be operated for recreational purposes without any authorization whatsoever from the FAA. Inconsistency in regulations provide ample opportunity to misinterpret the rules.
I mentioned on the show that a fixed-wing drone could potentially stay aloft for thirty minutes, up to four hours, and beyond. While it's true that a fixed-wing craft can stay aloft for longer periods than a multicopter, the multicopter is better at fulfilling other roles.
Multicopters are uniquely gifted with the ability to hover in a fixed position for the entire duration of its flight. They are also better at negotiating obstacles and maneuvering in tight spaces, as they do not require forward momentum to provide them with lift. Relative to their overall size, multicopters are also able to lift a heavier load than their fixed-wing counterparts. They really are the ideal platforms for many aerial photography and filming applications.
Balloons are another platform for aerial photography. They trump fixed-wing and multirotor craft for "loitering time," the amount of time the craft can stay above a desired target. Being a tethered aircraft, they are also less stringently regulated here in the United States, meaning currently you can use them legally in more circumstances than you would a multicopter or fixed-wing drone. They do have one shortfall, however, and that is they aren't nearly as mobile or controllable as their counterparts. They drift with the air current, and are only as mobile as the operator is able to re-locate the tether.
Dronejournalism.org is pursuing multicopters, but our most complete project at the moment is a fixed-wing drone. That's because the fixed-wing drone is perfect for being able to photomap swaths of land. And with the proper equipment, they can aim a camera in such a way that it lessens the negative effects of circling above a target. In other words, the camera can pan, tilt, and zoom so that the direction the drone is heading at the time is nearly arbitrary.
Recently, we started the motor on that drone for the first time. Weather has hampered our flying the drone for the time being. I'll leave you with video of that moment. It's filmed from the same camera (a GoPro2) that we'll be mounting to to the drone in the future.