That low humming noise you are hearing in the background as you read this could be the motor of your refrigerator, or could it be an unmanned aircraft, newly legalized for use by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA)?
The FAA announced on Tuesday its new set of rules for the commercial use of drones. With typical bureaucratic fanfare, the FAA promised that the regime will “work to harness new innovations safely, to spur job growth, advance critical scientific research and save lives.” And in a language that job-hungry Americans can understand, they said it could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.
Official Washington lined up to salute the program — and itself. The White House said it highlights how “our innovative progress over the last seven and a half years has helped continue to make our economy the strongest and most durable in the world.”
Marke “Hoot” Gibson, the FAA’s senior adviser for drones, declared it the “most fundamental change in aviation in our lifetime.”
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called it — inevitably — “a new era in aviation.”
It’s actually a bit premature to proclaim the dawn of a new era. It actually represents only a cautious step forward in the federal government’s slow process of prying open the door to private operation of drones, something industry lobbyists have been urging for years.
Restrictions on unmanned aircraft until now have kept the industry pretty much grounded. Besides requiring commercial operators to have a pilot’s license, they had to apply to the FAA on a case-by-case basis for permission to fly. As a result, only 5,300 permits have been issued to date in the entire country. Easing those restrictions will not immediately fill the skies with small, profit-making machines, but it is, to borrow a phrase, change you can believe in. The technology is there, the money is there, and the federal government is getting there.
To be sure, business leaders, though delighted at the announcement, are still somewhat frustrated. They chafe at the remaining limits: Commercial drones must weigh less than 55 pounds, they can’t go above 400 feet or 100 miles per hour, they must remain within sight of the operator during flight, and night flying will need a special permit.
The best expert guess at this point is that it will take at least another year before the FAA can begin to allow routine small-drone operations over crowds or densely populated areas.
Perhaps the most enticing prospect commercially — that of using drones for deliveries, which companies like Amazon and Walmart are interested in — is still way off. The FAA said the idea will have to wait while more research is conducted. Deployment of drones to inspect power lines and for disaster relief will also not begin right away.
The FAA’s go-slow approach, no matter how frustrating to drone entrepreneurs, is probably justified. If the changes prove to be as big as they are saying, they will unavoidably create a multitude of unforeseen problems.
An ongoing case in Kentucky provides just a sampling of the legal imponderables that could ensue. The court there is considering vertical property ownership. How high off the ground does an aircraft have to fly before it is no longer considered on your land? Does the FAA have the right to govern what you fly in your back yard?
The California legislature tried to pass a bill last year that would have allowed emergency services to disable drones that were interfering with rescue or law enforcement operations. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it because he said he did not want to “create new crimes” and that existing laws for air safety should be sufficient.
Federal officials also hope to navigate above the legal nightmare of state-by-state regulation of drones. The new FAA rules move in the direction of a unified, national regulatory scheme for the industry, one that will be coherent and safe.
As for that droning noise you may have heard, it probably was just your refrigerator, after all. It will be a while before the drones are up and flying.