This Is The FAA's Plan For Drone-Friendly Skies

Buried inside a dull bureaucratic tome is the future of flying robots in America.

Drones And Their Pilots

Drones: both a pilot and a machine!Federal Aviation Administration

The United States is one step closer to a more drone-filled future. The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates civilian flight in America, published a report yesterday titled Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS), a roadmap for adding drones to the skies of tomorrow. It's the FAA's plan to safely integrate drones with everything else soaring around above our heads.

Right now, drones are highly restricted in American airspace: the FAA prohibits their use except through specific test-site approval or, in the case of smaller drones, as model airplanes and toys. (Even in that case, the FAA restricts use of personal drones for commercial purposes, and even filed a complaint against a hobbyist pilot that sold video footage his drone recorded.) But widespread use of drones is coming, and those drones will have to come into a sky already populated by airlines, shipping companies, commercial helicopters, and licensed pilots.

Adding a new category of aircraft is an understandably daunting task for the FAA. They're starting with a "first, do no harm" approach, stating that when America adds more drones to the skies, it will be done "without reducing existing capacity, decreasing safety, negatively impacting current operators, or increasing the risk to airspace users or persons and property on the ground."

Congress required the roadmap as part of the 2012 FAA reauthorization, to see how the FAA was doing on their 2015 goal for starting to integrate drones into U.S. airspace. How close are we to that future? Here are the major points from yesterday's report:

What's A Drone, Anyway?

The FAA doesn't use the term drone, preferring instead the less politically loaded term "unmanned aircraft," but they have narrowed down the definition:

A device used or intended to be used for flight in the air that has no onboard pilot. This device excludes missiles, weapons, or exploding warheads, but includes all classes of airplanes, helicopters, airships, and powered-lift aircraft without an onboard pilot. UA do not include traditional balloons (see 14 CFR Part 101), rockets, tethered aircraft and un-powered gliders

Basically, drones are flying machines intended for more one than a single use. Cruise missiles or guided bombs with wings don't make the cut (and are also military machines, which are at the very least unlikely to be used in commercial airspace). As for model aircraft, the category of smaller, toy-like flying machines used by hobbyists, the FAA is sticking to an older definition, and restricting them to flight only within direct eyesight of the person piloting them (as opposed to remote-flying, or using cameras on the model for navigation). Between these two categories are small unmanned aircraft, which weigh less than 55 pounds (like model airplanes), but otherwise fly like regular drones. These will get special rules, because small vehicles flying remotely over distance is fairly new.

In addition, the FAA highlights that drones are part of a system, and not just flying robots. FAA regulation will also govern the crew members, including pilots and people operating onboard sensors. The FAA also acknowledges that part of the system is the data link between the people on the ground and the machine in the air--lose that, and suddenly you have a machine in the sky without a pilot.

Parrot AR Drone

Small quadrotors like this are what most civilian drones look like right now.Nicolas Halftermeyer, via Wikimedia Commons

How To Stop Crashes

For the FAA, an agency born out of a mid-air collision, the scariest part of drones is the chance of them crashing. While drones themselves don't carry pilots, they could still crash into other aircraft or vehicles or buildings or anything else, really, and cause injury or damage, especially if they lose contact with their pilots. In theory, there's a technological solution: sense-and-avoid algorithms. Google's self-driving cars are already adept enough to complete Nevada drivers' tests, but navigating the flat plane of a road is much simpler than moving through the sky.

In 2012, the US Army tested a ground-based sense-and-avoid systems for their drones, to prove they can work. The tests were successful, with further tests expected in 2014. So while the technology is in development, it's not ready yet. Also worth mentioning is that ground-based sense-and-avoid systems work like robotic aircraft controllers, talking to drones and planes and keeping the unmanned aircraft from running into things. That's useful, but it still doesn't solve the problem of a drone that loses contact with its controllers.

In cases like that, drones will need to have their own airborne sense-and-avoid systems on board. This technology, allowing flying machines to detect and fly around other flying machines when communication with people and computers on the ground is lost, is at best only available in the mid-term, likely between 2016 and 2020, according to the FAA. For onboard sense-and-avoid systems, the FAA says that "there are required technologies that must be matured to enable the safe and seamless integration of UAS in the NAS." Until this technology is ready, expect the FAA to be extra cautious about drone applications, especially in busy skies.

Privacy

The report says that drone test sites must have an FAA-approved privacy plan. The plans, which will vary from test site to test site, are required to have the same structure: publicly posted and available rules governing drone activity, reviewed annually, with input from the public. This is new, a departure from the FAA's earlier posture demurring about privacy as not really part of their "chief mission is to ensure the safety and efficiency of the entire aviation system," the report says. Senator Al Franken brought up privacy in a hearing before the Senate last March about drones, and it seems the FAA has acknowledged privacy as a major concern for many people. (Right now, in the absence of federal rules, states are responding on their own. Texas, after a hobbyist drone photographed illegal dumping by a slaughterhouse, drafted a law making drone photography by private citizens illegal without explicit consent from those being photographed. This law took effect September 1.)

The rules are necessarily broad, since the agency is creating guidelines nationally for vehicles that will travel through myriad jurisdictions, all potentially with different laws for law enforcement, personal, and commercial drone usage. Another reason is that safeguarding privacy is a new role for the agency, and they're approaching it very, very cautiously. (For an example, see this back-and-forth between the FAA and those seeking greater privacy protections, published by the FAA in the same document with the new privacy rules.) For most privacy rights advocates, the FAA might not be going far enough. But having the framework, and acknowledging that privacy is a major concern, is a big step forward, and there's plenty of room for further improvement in balancing the benefits and dangers that come with thousands of cameras flying overhead.

Quadrotor Takes Photographs At Versaille

Flying cameras at a major privacy concern, but also a potential boon for law enforcement and agriculture.Lionel Allorge

The Big Picture

Besides the absence of authorization, there are two main obstacles to greater drone use by companies, organizations, and citizens within the United States: worries about privacy among the general public, and fear of safety risks from the FAA. The roadmap addresses the privacy concerns, but it'll take local engagement, better regulations, and time to get people, many of whom associate drones with a targeted killing program, to accept that the small machine flying over the nearby vineyard isn't a risk.

This won't matter at all, though, unless drones can actually start flying in American skies, and that will take either a new degree of comfort with risk from the FAA, or the development of better collision avoidance technology. Safety first is the principle the FAA is working with, and until the agency can guarantee that drones won't undermine 55 years of improved safety in American airspace, you can expect sanctioned commercial use of drones to arrive slowly. But at least there's a plan.

Read the full report, all 74 pages of it, here.