FAA Official's Comments Indicate Legalizing Small Commercial Drone Operations Long Way Off

May 9 2014, 10:37pm CDT | by

Any hope for legalizing small commercial drone operations in the near future were dashed by Jim Williams,  head of the FAA’s unmanned aircraft office, speaking yesterday in San Francisco to the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition.  Although small  unmanned aircraft rulemaking- applicable to those under 55 pounds - is expected to begin by the end of this year, the entire rulemaking process for significant rules, according to Mr. Williams, takes 7 to 10 years.  And, he stated, that this rulemaking would certainly be considered significant.  So it seems that no rules are likely to be finalized until the end of 2021 at the earliest and possibly not until 2024.  This is much later than many in the commercial UAV community that I have spoken with expected and hoped for.

Until there are final rules, Mr. Williams stated that approval of commercial drone operations would only be done on a case-by-case basis.  As of now, only commercial operations in the Arctic have been approved. But Mr. Williams was hopeful that a process  authorized in accordance with Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 would allow a faster introduction of commercial operations, at least in some specific categories, such as precision agriculture (fertilizer and pesticide application), closed-set filming,  refinery, pipeline and powerline inspection.  According to Mr. Williams, this would be done via an exemption to the certification process but operators would still need to get operating approval before they could fly.  Although it seemed that this could be done faster than the 7-10 year horizon for rulemaking, it did not appear to offer any realistic opportunity for commercial operation in the near future.

Listening to Mr. Williams’ presentation was very dismaying both in terms of the commercial opportunities that will be missed in the US and because of the very real safety issues that will continue to grow in the absence of rules that regulate commercial operations.


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