Small Drones Aren't a Threat to Airplanes If You Don't Fly Them Near Airports

The small drone industry wrote its own regulations because the FAA is slow.

Dec 22 2014, 8:00pm

​Image: marekuliasz/Shutterstock

​The Federal Aviation Administration has taken far too long to write and release its commercial drone regulations. So, a lawyer went and wrote some for the agency.

Today, a drone trade group called the UAS America Fund and Brendan Schulman, the country's foremost drone lawyer, filed an official regulatory framework with the FAA that would set rules for "micro" drones that weigh three pounds or less. Along with it, the group commissioned a safety analysis that suggests drones of that size can be flown with very little risk to air traffic.

The proposed rules would allow people to fly micro drones commercially, as long as the operator stays more than five miles away from an airport, flies below 400 feet, stays within line-of-sight, and becomes licensed. The entire framework consists of a six-page rules proposal and 49 pages of research, background, and safety information intended to help the FAA decide whether or not to implement the new regulation.

The licensing process would be much less intensive than one that the FAA is currently considering, which would require drone pilots to get a manned pilot's license in order to fly commercially. Instead, commercial micro drone pilots would take a "ground school" class that teaches them how to read airspace charts and how to read specific FAA advisory notices.

A chart of all bird strikes studied in the safety analysis. Image: KramerLevin

Ultra popular—and powerful—consumer drones such as the DJI Phantom and 3D Robotics IRIS+ fall under that weight limit, meaning that some real, high-quality work could be done within the constraints of the proposed rule.

"There's a lot of value in this initial category," Schulman told me. "I think people have thought about this idea that we need different rules for lighter-weight drones, especially at low altitudes, for some time now. But we wanted to ground that thought in something more analytical than just a gut feeling."

So, Schulman commissioned air safety expert Adam Dershowitz of Exponent Engineering, a science consulting firm, to do what's believed to be the first thorough safety analysis of what flying these things around would look like.

The FAA's official stance is that drones could crash into a plane and bring it down, and has often compared hypothetical drone strikes to the very real problem of bird strikes that happen near airports every once in a while. In fact, birds may be more dangerous than drones because, though they're made of feather and bone, they often fly much faster than small drones can. Dershowitz suggests that, in a collision, the kinetic energy transferred from a drone, or a bird, to the airplane is more important than the material that it's made out of.

Furthermore, using the FAA's own data, Dershowitz found that, over the past 25 years, there has never been a fatal bird strike involving medium or small birds in the airspace Schulman's regulations would use.

"The extreme rarity of any collisions between birds and aircraft away from airports and at low altitude, despite the population of 10 billion birds, suggests that unintentional impact between UAVs and manned aircraft away from airports and low altitude will always remain extremely unlikely," Dershowitz wrote.

The proposal would also prohibit drone pilots from flying within 100 feet of "uninvolved persons" and would prohibit commercial drone operators from flying over an "open-air assembly of persons." Schulman suggests that the proposal will keep people safe on the ground.

The FAA is legally obligated to at least consider and respond to the proposed regulations, Schulman said, though there's no guarantee that the agency will implement them.

But, considering how anxious and fed up most would-be drone pilots are with the agency's oft-delayed progress on its "small" drone regulations (which would cover everything that weighs less than 55 pounds), Schulman sees this as an easy way for the FAA to win some good will without significantly endangering anyone.

"We think there's an urgent need to get this micro category up and running as soon as possible. Hopefully the response is positive, because we think it's a very sensible way forward," he said. "Zero to 55 pounds is a huge range—it's too much to treat them all the same way."