Drones are increasingly used for agricultural purposes
Drones are increasingly used for agricultural purposes | flickr, the commons

New FAA rules for drones divide opinions on the ground

As federal rules regulating commercial drones finally take effect Monday, various interests are still arguing about their likely effects.
The Federal Aviation Administration ( FAA) took three years to analyze the increasingly popular industry of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) before issuing its guidelines.
Drone industry insiders tell AMI Newswire they welcome the new rules, which will finally open the door to commercial business. Advocates for U.S. farmers also embrace them. 
But critics blast the rules as overly burdensome, pointing to the fact they total 624 pages.

Known in shorthand as Part 107, the regulations specify that drones must be 55 pounds or lighter, can be flown only during daylight hours, must remain below 400 feet and be operated by a human who can maintain “line of sight” with the device. Also, operators must be at least 16 years of age and cannot fly a drone over people uninvolved in its flight or with any hazardous materials attached.
In place of previously required – and expensive – pilot’s licenses, operators must pass a $150 written test. The FAA will consider waivers from the rules on a case-by-case basis.
For companies such as Expert Drones, a three-year-old drone retailer in the process of opening a new facility in Alexandria, Va., the rules are definitely welcome. Eric Jones, the company’s business development director, said they finally provide certainty.
“The FAA has done well in their first pass at these rules,” Jones told AMI Newswire. “The biggest thing is that the rules clearly spell out what the requirements are for safe and responsible operations. Why that’s important to Expert Drones, in particular, and other folks trying to get into the field, is that aspiring operators understand what it takes to qualify and obtain the certifications you need to operate commercially … There’s been a lot of uncertainty, so these rules really do a good job of parsing out what the limitations are.”
But the rules do fall short in some places, Jones added, because technology has “pulled ahead.” For example, the FAA will require drones to avoid manned aircraft as well as hazards on the ground – but many drones already have technology that does that automatically.
More strident criticism comes from the Heritage Foundation, the Washington-based think-tank whose analysts are unhappy with how long the regulations took to develop and how long it takes to wade through them.
“The only reason you can really call this an opening of the door is that they needlessly closed the door several years ago and have gone to a case-by-case waiver system,” said Heritage policy analyst Jason Snead. “It’s good that regulations are finally out there, but while there’s some good news, unfortunately there’s a lot of bad news, because this is an unnecessarily piecemeal strategy the FAA has adopted.”
Specifically, Snead said the type of commercial activity allowed is very limited and some uses, such as delivering retail packages or search-and-rescue missions, aren’t allowed without a waiver. Also, the new federal rules side-step the question of whether they pre-empt state and local laws – meaning that local control can be taken away in the future.
“The FAA is putting this as a grand opening of the floodgates, but it really isn’t,” Snead said. “And they’re persisting in this strategy to only allow certain technologies to develop at a certain pace – and they haven’t yet demonstrated a legitimate safety concern to justify it.”
A more satisfied perspective comes from the American Farm Bureau, where director of congressional relations R.J. Karney says farmers can use the new technology to provide images of their crops and collect data and surveillance.
Larger operations, such as watering or seeding crops, aren’t yet possible because of the 55-pound limit, he noted. But he pronounced the new rules “workable,” even though farmers are particularly unhappy with the line-of-sight requirement.
“Farmers are continually making business decisions and, like any other business owner, that comes down to analytics,” Karney told AMI. “The more accurate those are, the better decisions you can make … And farmers finally know the rules of the road – or the air. It’s not a silver bullet for agriculture, but it is a complementary tool for farmers in the field.”
According to the FAA, since drones exploded onto the marketplace in about 2010, the number of registered drone operators in the U.S. has exceeded the number of manned aircraft. There are more than 325,000 operators as of this past February.
Thirty-six states now have laws or resolutions regulating drones in some way, and every other state except South Dakota has at least considered legislation. Fourteen laws are being discussed in nine states so far this year.