Safety & Security

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FAA: Drone On

16 Feb, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
New FAA Rulings Mean New Developments in Aerial Sports Photography

Is the Goodyear Blimp – a longtime presence at big-name sports events – about to become as much of a flying dinosaur as the pterodactyl? It is likely. The game of drones is still up in the air for now – but the government has expressed its willingness to set some user-friendly ground rules regarding small unmanned aircraft.

According to preliminary rulings from the Federal Aviation Administration, eventually, small drones (defined as anything under 55 pounds) will be able to be used for routine tasks – including aerial photography.

Just not right away.

The final rules are expected to be hammered out over the next two to three years. And when they are in place, they may include a separate category with fewer restrictions for very small drones, likely to be defined as less than 4.4 pounds.

According to an Associated Press report, the FAA is also released a variety of proposed requirements for commercial operators to meet, such as passing a knowledge test administered by the agency as well as a federal security check. The small drones could travel as fast as 100 mph, at altitudes of 500 feet or lower. Flights over people except those involved in the drone's operation would be prohibited.

"We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules," said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. "We want to maintain today's outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry."

Drones have become commonplace in outdoor sports photography, particularly in cases such as ski competitions where following an athlete with a camera is nearly impossible on land. Point-to-point races and other fast-moving events that cover a large amount of land are similarly good uses.

However, there are worries that such aircraft could distract, or even pose a threat to the safety of, athletes, spectators and others – including other planes.

The AP report notes, “One of the key safety concerns is that without a human on board, the ability to ‘see and avoid’ other aircraft is limited. Another concern is that the link between the operator and a remote control aircraft can be broken, causing the drone to fly away until it loses power or collides with something. Cases of flyaway drones getting stuck in trees or hitting buildings are rampant. Last month, a drone that its operator lost control of flew over the White House fence and crashed on the lawn before Secret Service agents could block it.”

In some cases, drones have even caused havoc at sports events; at an October 2014 soccer match between Albania and Serbia, the use of a craft carrying a pro-Albanian message created an on-field fight that resulted in arrests. And it’s not the first time. According to the Washington Post, the FAA made investigations into a number of incidents in which “thrill-seekers with small, camera-toting drones” made passes over large outdoor sporting events, violating airspace rules. Unauthorized drones have been spotted at both major college football games and NFL games.

The AP notes the FAA is is researching technology to allow small drones to fly safely beyond the sight of operators, Huerta said. He emphasized that introduction of commercial drones into the national airspace will be a gradual – and closely monitored – process. The government is also looking ahead to how larger drones might be allowed to fly in airspace shared by manned aircraft, for example, he said.

Depending upon the size and complexity of the craft, drones can be relatively inexpensive to purchase, come pre-equipped with cameras and are controllable with a smartphone. In other words, there’s not much stopping the average consumer from becoming a pilot.

The agency currently bans commercial drone flights except for a few dozen companies that have been granted waivers. That ban will stay in place until regulations become final, but FAA officials plan to continue granting waivers case by case. About 300 waiver requests are pending and new requests are being filed almost daily.

An FAA analysis points to an estimate by the trade association that drones will create 70,000 jobs with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion in the first three years after their integration into U.S. skies.

Read the full AP article here.

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