When the President signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (pdf), the government set aside funding for the federal agency responsible for controlling the nation's airspace, while at the same time requiring that unmanned aircraft be allowed access to that airspace. But for all the news that integration could bring the dawn of the commercial drone boom in the United States, one important detail slipped under the radar.
The law requires that the Federal Aviation Administration "provide for the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015." But most of the small drones being designed for commercial purposes, including commercial news reporting and cinematography, don't actually fly in the national airspace system (NAS).
Instead, they (usually) fly between ground level and 400 feet, which is technically below the NAS. Therefore, these small unmanned aircraft fall outside the scope of the law.
Fortunately for those seeking to use small drones, the FAA has been working on special rules for years now, and seem poised to publish rules for those systems well before the September 2015 deadline required for larger, high-flying aircraft.
Rules for small UAS are "moving
forward and actually should be issued for public comment early next year," wrote Douglas Gould, ATO Mission Support and Flight Standards Services at the FAA, in response to an email sent by DroneJournalism.org.
John Williams, manager of the FAA's UAS integration office, told attendees at the Association for Unmanned Vehicles and Systems International conference in August that proposed rules for small unmanned aircraft would be published by year's end.
These rules will affect all aircraft under 55 pounds, and flying below 400 feet. The public comment period for these rules will be 90 days, which means the rules could come into effect by December 2014 or January 2015.
At the Small Unmanned Business Expo in San Francisco, which took place in July, it was suggested these rules would allow for an online permit process. That process could be as simple as self-declaring operation within constraints of the small UAS rules, and indicating when and where the aircraft is flying, according to Ted Wierzbanowski, chairman of the ASTM F-38 Standards Committee.
Plans to integrate manned and unmanned together in the NAS has been disrupted with a number of delays, including a recent demand by Congress that the FAA report on the privacy impact of drones. Likewise, the small UAS rulemaking process has experienced its own delays. The Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for small unmanned aircraft is more than a year behind schedule.
Nevertheless, if the FAA sticks to this new schedule, it's possible that the skies will be open to drone journalists before the September 2015 integration deadline.