When President Trump signed an executive order last week requiring two federal regulations to be rescinded for every new one passed, he simultaneously pulled the brakes on the future of drone delivery in the United States.
While many industries see the prospect of less regulation as positive, the nascent drone industry actually needs regulations in order to grow.
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The reason drones need regulations is because in 2014 the National Transportation Safety Board classified drones as aircraft, which means drones need to abide by FAA regulations in order to fly. The problem is that many drone regulations don't yet exist, and the FAA will have a hard time killing existing rules to make room for new ones.
"If regulations for unmanned aircraft are held up or are stripped away, there's actually no way for drones to access the airspace," says Gregory McNeal, co-founder of Airmap, a drone mapping company.
The FAA's mandate is, after all, to protect the safety of the skies. And if the FAA were to move forward with a rulemaking, it's unclear what regulations the agency could actually rescind.
"There aren't a lot for the drone industry to begin with," says Gretchen West, an advisor specializing in the drone industry with Hogan Lovells. "And I can't imagine they'd do anything from a manned aviation perspective to jeopardize the safety of the airspace."
The rules are still being written
Trump entered office while the FAA is in the process of creating rules for drones. The more laws there are on how to fly drones safely, the more opportunities there are for the industry to expand.
Right now, for example, it's still illegal to fly drones beyond visual line of sight, a necessity for a viable drone delivery operation, since the whole point of drone delivery is that there isn't a person there for the delivery.
"In the drone industry, it seems counter intuitive, but we actually want regulation. And not having regulations is putting a halt to the growth of this industry," says West.
The FAA requires pilots to get a waiver to fly beyond visual line of sight, since the agency hasn't written rules for that kind of operation yet, and waivers for flying without a person watching are hard to get. Only three such waivers have been granted. And the FAA has only granted one waiver so far for drone operations over people, which was awarded to CNN last year for newsgathering.
In total, the FAA has granted 322 waivers for commercial drone flights, according to data the agency shared last month. To put that in perspective, there are currently about 23,000 commercial drone pilots licensed in the U.S., meaning either the FAA isn't getting many requests for waivers at all or the waiver process just isn't sustainable.
Everything's on hold or the process has to change
One way to circumvent the rulemaking process would be for the agency to adopt a more flexible risk-based approach to crafting drone laws.
With a risk-based approach, a baseline set of rules for flying in the most ideal conditions, like for example, during daylight hours, in visual line of sight and in low-altitude airspace, would be established, and then any operations that fall outside of that could be privy to an additional set of requirements set by the FAA to maintain an equivalent level of safety.
It's similar to the waiver system now, where the pilot would have to demonstrate that the operation under the conditions proposed could be conducted safely. But it could also mean that more innovative drone operations, like delivery, might be able to happen faster if the pilot or group requesting could prove it was safe, since no one would be waiting for new rules to be written.
But adopting a risk-based system would also require a more streamlined process for approving and assessing the safety of drone operations. It already can take months for a waiver to be processed, and approving each operation or set of operations, as opposed to having the ability to write new rules, could mean a huge strain on the FAA.
Cashing in on new rules
The FAA finalized its commercial drone rules at the end of August of last year, commonly called Part 107 rules, which sets standards for flying within line of sight, during the day, with a licensed pilot and not over people. Since then, many in the commercial drone industry have seen their businesses grow dramatically.
"Measure's business has definitely grown since Part 107 took effect," said Dave Bowen with Measure, a drone service provider. "The number of cell tower drone inspections has at least tripled."
Another company, Kespry, that specializes in drone services for construction, insurance and mining, says its revenue tripled since the introduction of the latest FAA commercial drone rules.
"Since the commercial drone rules went into effect last summer, our business has skyrocketed," said Jon Hagranes of Kittyhawk, a drone management firm. "The quarter after the rules were out was three times bigger than our previous quarter."
But the Part 107 rules don't account for flying at night, like for emergency search operations, nor do they allow for flying beyond visual line of sight, like for a hard to see pipeline inspection or delivery. Existing rules also don't allow for flying over densely populated areas — all of which require a waiver or new rules to be made. But with the regulatory freeze set by President Trump, the policymaking process that many were complaining was already taking too long, might be on hold indefinitely.
Though yesterday three advocacy organizations filed suit against Trump on the grounds that the president exceeded his constitutional authority in signing the executive order on new regulations.
"We're investing millions of dollars in this space," says Gregory McNeal of Airmap. "And every day that there is a delay is a day that we are farther from being able to really watch our business grow."
—By April Glaser, Re/code.net.
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