Everything came to a stop at the U.S. Open tennis tournament on Sept. 3 as a drone appeared out of the evening sky and passed over the players while they volleyed.
Then, unexpectedly, the drone careened toward the grandstands and crashed into the seating area. That area of the stadium was unoccupied at the time, and no one was injured.
However, 26th seeded player Flavia Pennetta of Italy said she was shaken by the appearance of the drone and thought she was about to become the victim of a terrorist attack. Pennetta, despite the drone intrusion, went on to win the match against Monica Niculescu of Romania.
On the morning of Sept. 4, a New York City school teacher was arrested for the drone flight and charged with reckless endangerment, among other crimes. The 26-year-old teacher works at a technology high school in Brooklyn.
This sort of incident points up the rising need for some means to get a handle on drone use in the United States. The teacher that was charged for his drone flight is presumably able to read and write. Thus, he was at least theoretically able to understand the rules. But for whatever reason, he either didn’t know the rules or he didn’t bother to check. He just launched the drone to have some fun.
Unfortunately for the FAA, which sets the rules for things that fly, there isn’t a way to instill good sense into people. In one sense, the agency is doomed to be playing catch-up with people who are too stupid or too lazy to find out what the safety rules are and then follow them.
But there is one thing that the FAA can do, which is to come up with a coherent set of rules that are easy to understand and then make it easy for people to find out what those rules are and follow them.
Now, the FAA has an app for that. The agency has just released the beta version of a new app called B4UFLY that’s allows people to check the area where they intend to fly what the government calls a UAS device (unmanned aircraft system).
The new app, which currently only runs on iOS, will look at the location and make sure it’s not in prohibited airspace, not near an airport and won’t be flying in a situation where it will endanger people.
The new app will be tested by about 1,000 people, and eventually will be available for devices beyond iPhones and iPads. It does require location services to be turned on and it’s designed for the full range of UAS operators, including drone pilots and people operating model airplanes.
The first look at the FAA’s approach to new UAS rules comes from new operating rules for model airplanes, which were released on Sept 2. One look at these rules, and you’ll notice the strong connection between it and the FAA’s NPRM (notice of proposed rulemaking) released earlier in 2015.
FAA Moves Ahead on Efforts to Bring Some Order to Drone Flights
One notable difference between what’s being discussed for drone rules and the new rules for model aircraft is that the latter can operate within 5 miles of an airport, as long as the use is properly coordinated.
Currently, the FAA is allowing UAS operations for specific purposes, including activities such as emergency services, antenna inspections and film making. Other operations for commercial drones are allowed on a case-by-case basis.
Hobby and recreational drones are already allowed to operate with restrictions that include line-of-sight operations, altitude restrictions of 500 feet and a 5 mile distance from an airport.
The fact that the rules for model aircraft have been officially released is encouraging news for everyone waiting for the final rules for drone operations. But perhaps more promising is the hiring of two senior executives who will be responsible for integrating UAS operations into the U.S. airspace.
Marke “Hoot” Gibson has been involved with UAS planning as a consultant to the FAA. Earl Lawrence has been an FAA executive in charge of small airplane rules and certification. He was also a vice president of the Experimental Aircraft Association (the membership of which includes at this eWEEK columnist).
An FAA spokesperson told eWEEK that the agency is working on getting the small UAS rule out as quickly as possible. While the FAA won’t discuss the contents of the new rule until it’s published, it’s safe to assume that it will closely resemble the model aircraft rule, and that it will closely follow the NPRM.
Two things you can expect with the new small UAS rule when it comes out are that fully autonomous drones will not be allowed for now and that Amazon won’t be getting its delivery drones right away.
The reasons why autonomous and delivery drones won’t be in the new regulations at first are due to several factors. First, the necessary see-and-avoid technology required for operation in U.S. airspace simply isn’t available yet.
One of the things that pilots learn in their training is how to look outside the cockpit for other aircraft and what to do when they’re spotted. Right now, the cameras aren’t good enough, and the data links aren’t reliable enough to do this alone.
Another reason that’s equally important is that drone operators don’t have a history of working within the safety rules. Model aircraft operators have worked with both air traffic control and within the national airspace rules for decades with good results, which is why the FAA is allowing them to fly the way they do.
Drone operators, unfortunately, are as known for flouting or ignoring the rules as much as anything else. While there are hundreds of drone operators who do follow all the rules and operate safely, there are also many that buzz commercial flights or interrupt tennis tournaments, and that behavior concerns the FAA.
It should concern the FAA because aviation safety is their job. Unfortunately, too many drone operators have failed to adopt a culture of safety or even of common sense, and until they do, drone operations are is going to be held on a very short leash.