By Mickey Osterreicher
Amidst all the hysterical reports that the sky is falling or it’s literally raining drones, Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis recently introduced a thoughtful Micro Drone amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act (AIRR Act). The amendment would create a new “Micro UAS Classification” of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), improving safety, access and compliance while also encouraging innovation. For the first time, micro drones would be permitted for commercial purposes, appropriately advancing what many believe to be the smallest, safest and fastest-growing sector of the UAS community. The House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee very commendably voted to accept that amendment without any voiced opposition and then approved the entire AIRR Act, as amended.
It is crucial to note this legislation would not deregulate the use of UAS, but rather proposes regulations containing five commonsense rules that are easy to remember and follow. In fact, many of these rules already exist to oversee safe practices for the recreational use of drones. Under the new amendment, micro UAS (mUAS) would be required to operate at: “(1) less than 400 feet above ground level; (2) at an airspeed of not greater than 40 knots; (3) within the visual line of sight of the operator; (4) during daylight; and (5) at least 5 statute miles from the geographic center of an airport [with an exception for those who provide notice and obtain permission].”
In response to this legislative initiative the FAA announced the formation of an aviation rulemaking committee composed of industry stakeholders to develop recommendations for a similar regulatory framework. Representatives for a coalition of more than a dozen news organizations (including NPPA) will participate as committee members.
Given the complicated and often-disregarded current FAA regulations for small UAS (sUAS), which includes every type of unmanned system under 55 pounds, we can only hope this bill will be enacted as approved and then implemented as quickly as possible. We believe that adopting the micro UAS rule will be far more effective in approving and regulating commercial use than waiting for a final FAA rule under the current Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, petitioning for a Section 333 Exemption, or operating a UAS “unlawfully” in fear of FAA enforcement action.
It is widely accepted that people are far more likely to abide by commonsense rules that impose the least burdensome restrictions. This is true for operators of small unmanned aircraft systems as well. The current proposed FAA requirements that are expected to be in place later this year include aeronautical knowledge testing on eleven topics, traveling to test facilities, and re-testing every two years—requirements that create high barriers for low-risk users, increasing the potential for widespread non-compliance.
The on-going restrictions on most sUAS uses are simply not sustainable or justifiable. Enacting a new category of mUAS subject to risk-based safety and operational restrictions will enable and enhance the safety of all aspects of UAS operations, including, but not limited to: newsgathering, educational, humanitarian and commercial use. It also will relieve the FAA from some of the administrative burdens of granting exemptions for low-risk operations, thus allowing the agency to focus its resources on the more challenging aspects of safely integrating UAS use into the national air space, which is another reason the FAA should immediately begin work to support mUAS approval.
Employing simple and familiar rules that already exist for recreational use and applying them to the smallest and safest UAS category, streamlines the process for everyone (including journalists) by encouraging a culture of safety and widespread voluntary compliance, while at the same time advancing innovation. Hopefully Congress will agree and pass an FAA reauthorization act that includes the mUAS amendment.
Mickey H. Osterreicher is general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) which is part of the News Media Coalition, advocating for the use of UAS for newsgathering. He has met with the FAA and congressional staff to discuss these issues as well as participated in stakeholder meetings held by the National Telecommunications and Information Agency regarding UAS privacy concerns.