While people around the U.S. purchase Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) and fly them for personal enjoyment and commercial profit, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is struggling to find a way to regulate them.
These UAV’s, or drones as the media call them, are easy to find and cheap. For as little as $300, you can buy a video-equipped helicopter UAV on the Internet that you control with your iPhone or iPad.
Online communities have formed around people that build their own UAV’s for personal enjoyment. The largest such community, DIYDrones.com, developed their own autopilot, called the ArduPilot Mega, or APM. The APM is about the size of a business card, and can turn any model airplane or helicopter into a fully functioning UAV. Many people, including the FAA, wonder if this kind of activity is legal.
Hobbyists who fly UAV’s point to a 30-year-old FAA document pertaining to model aircraft, Advisory Circular 91-57, Model Aircraft Operating Standards, which they say gives them free access to the skies.
Some of these private UAV flyers have even started using their machines to make money. The possibilities are endless, but some of the actual uses have been real estate photography, motion picture cinematography, search and rescue, and police work.
Commercialization, however, is where the FAA apparently draws the line on private UAV use, and has reportedly written letters to a few individuals asking them to desist operating their UAV for profit. But it seems that most UAV companies either don’t know or don’t care. Numerous websites of private UAV companies advertise services in everything from aerial photography to surveillance.
The FAA has granted some 1,428 public agencies permission to fly their UAV’s, according to a Freedom of Information Act request last year. This Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) process is not available to private companies. They must apply for a Special Airworthiness Certificate or Experimental Certificate, which only allow crew training and research, and exclude flying for profit.
Last year, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, passed by Congress in February, gave the FAA a set of milestones to integrate UAV’s into the national airspace by 2015. Most recently, the FAA belatedly complied with the milestone by selecting six UAS test sites to evaluate airspace integration of UAV’s.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Prescott Campus vied for one of the test sites as part of an Arizona statewide effort that would include several small test areas throughout the state. The small parcel of airspace over the northwest portion of the Embry-Riddle campus would reportedly be used to test small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in support of public safety agencies, such as law enforcement, fire departments, and search and rescue.
Several students, as part of clubs or teams and as individuals, are already operating UAS as hobbyists over the campus. These students build or purchase model aircraft, buy autopilots on the Internet and install them, and fly the aircraft autonomously. Strictly speaking, they are not breaking the law, but the university administration is considering regulating the activity.
Several of the under-the-radar commercial UAV operators in the United States, and indeed some Embry-Riddle students, are wondering if there really is a future in commercial UAV’s. While the answer is uncertain in the U.S., it is decidedly clearer in some other countries.
In Canada, Europe, and Australia, companies may apply through their respective aviation authorities to conduct business with an UAV. In all cases, the operation must be conducted safely by trained personnel over non-populated areas.
Australia is the first country in the world to offer UAV companies the opportunity to obtain operator certificates. The process reportedly takes around one year and $5,000 USD. Nearly 35 Australian companies have become certificated, and now perform jobs such as aerial photography and mine surveying. However, many more still fly their UAV’s for profit illegally, stating that the current regulations are “unenforceable.”
As for the United States, the horse has left the stable and an entire industry has started without asking the FAA for permission first. Now, that industry waits to see if the FAA will create regulations (and try to enforce them) or turn a blind, defeated eye.
Until such time that Embry-Riddle administration regulates hobby UAS flight on campus, the author urges students that operate UAS to use good judgment and to do so as safely as possible. AC 91-57 does offer good advice on safety and should be followed. The Academy of Model Aeronautics Safety Code also has safety guidelines, to include a document referring to safe use of autopilots in model aircraft. Good rules of thumb:
■ Always have the ability to take control manually
■ Avoid overflying buildings, parking lots, and people
■ Give right of way to manned aircraft
■ Respect others’ privacy
Advisory Circular 91-57 Model Aircraft Operating Standards
AMA Model Aircraft Safety Code
AMA Guidance on Autopilot Use