Regulations for commercial drones aren’t expected until next year but entrepreneurs should prepare for the government to open the floodgates, experts say.
While the Federal Aviation Administration is unlikely to finalize rules for unmanned aircraft by the end of the year, as mandated by Congress, it doesn’t make sense for companies to wait to get their business plans in order, according to speakers at the recent Precision Farming Expo in Salem, Ore.
“It’s not too early to get your skin in the game,” said Andrew McCollough, an analyst with SkyWard, a company that makes drone operations software.
Even if the rules take another two years, aspiring operators can use that time to figure out which aircraft and equipment best fit their plans, he said.
The FAA isn’t regulating drones used for recreation, but the agency takes a dim view of hobbyists venturing into territory that it considers to be commercial, said Wendie Kellington, an attorney specializing in unmanned aerial vehicles.
At this point, the FAA is taking a narrow view of “hobby.”
For example, the agency said flying a drone to check if crops need irrigation is only considered recreational if they’re “grown for personal enjoyment” and not if they’re part of a “commercial farming operation.”
Farmers and others who hope to legally use drones commercially before the FAA’s regulations are complete can apply for a “Section 333” exemption, which allows them to fly unmanned aircraft without a pilot’s license, Kellington said.
Applicants should be ready to wait, however. Of the 640 applications received by FAA, fewer than 50 have been granted in the past six months, she said.
Drone operators who obtain an exemption must still fly the drone within the “visual line of sight,” and the same requirement is proposed in the FAA’s planned regulations, Kellington said.
The agency decided the technology isn’t mature enough to allow drones to be flown beyond the line of sight, but those proposed regulations are still up for comment, she said.
Kellington said the FAA should at least have “placeholder” regulations authorizing such drone use, since the technology is likely to progress rapidly before the rules are final.
In reality, the FAA isn’t in the “enforcement business” of ensuring that farmers and other follow its rules for drones, but the agency would likely take action if an accident or other incident was brought to its attention, said Gretchen West, vice president of business development and government relations with DroneDeploy, which specializes in drone operations.
“We know there are people flying commercially every single day and the FAA is not going after them,” she said.
Even in remote rural areas, drone operators must be careful not to interfere with aerial spray applicators, said John Stevens, manager of the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial System Range, where drones are tested.
“Within the industry, we have the responsibility to make sure we’re doing it right,” he said.
As drones become more advanced, safety parameters will be incorporated into their operational systems and the issue will likely become less of a concern, said McCollough.
For example, McCollough’s cell phones relies on radio waves but that doesn’t mean he must get a ham radio operator’s license to use it.
“The rules are going to, in large part, be built into the technology,” he said.