Forgive me for circling back on the the topic of drone use for commercial mapping in the U.S., but I’m drawn to it like a bee to honey. Perhaps it’s because I used to fly airplanes, or because drone technology encompasses a lot of the technology I’m involved with: GNSS, inertial navigation, GIS, imagery. Be that as it may, the most intriguing aspect of this issue in the U.S. is that seemingly law-abiding citizens are knowingly (or unknowningly) disregarding the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) firm stance that no commercial drone operations are allowed.
According to the FAA, it doesn’t matter if the drone flies under 400 feet. It doesn’t matter if an operator only flies the drone above his/her own property. It doesn’t matter if the drone operator doesn’t charge for the service. If its business-related (such as mapping your fields), it’s illegal, according to the FAA.
But, who cares?
Late last year, Fox News published a story about a farmer in Idaho who uses a drone he built to monitor activities on his farm. According to the report, he’s not waiting around for the FAA “to work out rules for drones.” Countless U.S. start-up companies are promoting their mapping drones by either selling drones (MarcusUAV, Honeycomb, VoltAerial Robotics, Precision Drone, etc.) or selling services to process data collected by drones (such as DroneMapper).
Last week, online magazine Politico published an article appropriately titled “FAA Risks Losing the Drone War.” The article summarizes that as much as the FAA wants to tell you it’s illegal to fly drones commercially, people are doing it anyway. They aren’t sneaking around trying to hide it! High-profile people have openly used drones without regard to the FAA’s opinion. Martin Scorsese reportedly hired a drone service company to shoot one of the scenes in the 2013 movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Last year, NBC News published an article entitled “Damn the regulations! Drones plying US skies without waiting for FAA rules.” In the article, they quote an anonymous operator.
“Honestly?” said one commercial operator, who requested anonymity to protect his business. “My hope is that I’m far afield enough and small enough potatoes to the FAA that I can fly under the radar on this one.”
I think that’s the most honest statement I’ve read so far, and that’s probably the attitude of nearly every operator who is flying drones commercially in the U.S., even as they attempt to justify how they are legally (or illegally) dancing around the FAA rules.
The FAA has to take the majority of the blame for letting this happen. Perhaps it’s intentional? A “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy? There seem to have been very few enforcement actions taken by the FAA. In November 2013, I requested a list of enforcement actions from the FAA regarding UAVs. Despite giving me delivery dates, nothing has arrived and I’m told I won’t likely see anything from the agency. In an article published by BusinessWeek last week entitled “The FAA Finds Commercial Drone Flights Hard to Police,” BusinessWeek reports that the FAA informed the magazine that it took action “17 times in 13 months ending July.” Furthermore, the article quotes a former FAA employee involved with drones as saying “The reality is, there is no way to patrol it.”
Thanks, and see you next time.
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