Friday, December 3, 2021

Enter the Drones: The FAA and UAVs in America

Bill Carey

New arrivals to the world of commercial drones may trace its start to the August 2016 effective date of the FAA’s Part 107 regulation for commercial small unmanned aircraft systems or perhaps to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which expedited their entry into the national airspace system. The industry’s old salts know, however, that Part 107 has a history dating back a decade or more to the early 2000s.

Even the FAA, in a preamble to Part 107, stated that its effort to introduce drones into the airspace began in 2008—the year that acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell signed an order to create a small Unmanned Aircraft Systems aviation rulemaking committee. But former agency executives I interviewed for my book, Enter the Drones: The FAA and UAVs in America, remember it differently; they say there were multiple attempts to draft a regulation dating to around 2003. A variety of factors—indifferent leadership, bureaucracy, interagency differences, outside pressure, the inherent complexity of the regulation—delayed its release for more than a decade.

Explaining the outwardly inexplicable lateness of the “small UAS rule” speaks to my mission in writing the book—to describe the emergence of drones as a civil and commercial phenomenon in the United States. Until Enter the Drones, much of the popular literature on unmanned aircraft focused on their military legacy, their deployment in foreign conflicts, the ethics of using them to perform targeted killings. Below the radar and missed by the often overheated mainstream media coverage, the FAA had been authorizing drone flights by other federal agencies and public universities since the early 1990s. Major aerospace manufacturers developed pilotless aircraft that served for climate research, wildlife monitoring and other peaceable purposes, demonstrating their utility beyond war zones. Then, only in the past few years, came the quadcopter and other multi-rotor drones, dramatically changing the industry’s trajectory.

As an aviation trade press reporter who covers both military and commercial aviation, I was positioned to witness the evolution of drones in both realms (which are still inextricable when it comes to unmanned aircraft). Much of the book I wrote during the fast-moving events of 2014, when the FAA granted the first exemptions to operate drones commercially to six Hollywood-affiliated aerial video companies, and established that a drone is an aircraft through its enforcement action against Raphael Pirker.

With the rapid advance of the commercial drone industry, fueled by the long-awaited release of Part 107, it all seems like old news now. Many, although not all, people who played important roles in the industry’s ascent have either retired or moved on to other jobs and other pursuits. But there is a compelling history to the emergence of drones that deserves telling, something I’ve endeavoured to do with Enter the Drones.

Patrick and Gene spoke with Bill in this weeks podcast