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The FAA Pushes UAS Integration into the National Airspace

Updated: Apr 20, 2019

For those of us who fly drones professionally, there has been a lot of talk about the regulation of small, unmanned aircraft systems in the national airspace. You might have already guessed that not everyone is in favor of it. Truth be told, my opinion that it’s a good thing is probably in the minority.

I think many people are reacting to more regulations and licensing hassles, but there is a need. I think a quick look at where we were and where things are going will make my case.

Let’s start with a quick history:

Over the past 50 years or so, remotely controlled aircraft were considered toys – expensive, complicated toys, but toys nonetheless. The time, cost and training required to enjoy these toys were key factors in keeping their numbers down. The hobbyists also had some good lobbyists working to keep regulatory agencies at bay and legislation on the back burner. The FAA and congress really didn’t see this small number of “toys” as having enough impact in the airspace to really matter. I have looked at a lot of maps and find myself laughing at how many Academy of Model Aeronautic (AMA) fields are located well within the 5-mile radius of airports.

Sadly, living in a carefree world is another bit of history we can’t bring back. We have to address the sudden advancement in technology that such systems both affordable and easy to use, which has resulted in an explosion of drones in the world. While there are nearly 7,000 manned aircraft flying in the United states at any one time, experts estimate there will be more than 7 million drones in the U.S. by 2020. Many of which can be flown at great distances from the pilot. And I don’t even want to think about the national security implications of all these unmanned aircraft flying around without regulation. All of this means the US government has to address regulation.

The first step was deciding whether or not these “toys” need to be considered aircraft. As toys they were not going to be easily regulated but if they are to be considered aircraft the FAA could be tasked with their regulation. That made answer fairly simple, and…aircraft they are.

Welcome to the regulation revolution.

The first regulation came out banning drones from commercial use. This was kind of a bummer for those of us already using them to shoot commercials. If they were to be used for business then the operator had to be given an exemption from this regulation, which meant the pilot needed certification.

Unfortunately the minimal certification the FAA had to give was a sport pilot license which might cost about $10,000 to obtain. That was a fairly steep requirement for someone who simply wanted to make a couple bucks flying their DJI Phantom for some real estate shots. The FAA added a lot of additional requirements to the exemption, making it virtually impossible to fly for a simple video shoot. We have to accept this was new territory and the FAA and Congress were doing their best to move quickly. And we all know what happens when government tries to move quickly. (insert eye-roll here)

Fortunately after a couple of years the Part 107 certifications became available. YES! Finally, a certification for drone pilots that could be studied for and obtained relatively quickly but still rule out the everyday yahoo flying too close to airplanes. There was still no way to know when or where there someone might be flying a drone in the national airspace, but the certification was a step in the right direction.

Enter the LAANC system. This is a web-based system that allows a drone pilot to report to air traffic control when and where they will be flying inside the 5-mile radius of an airport. Finally we had a way to alert airplanes of drone activity in the area.

So here is my point. The FAA and the US Government have had to move at the comparable speed of light to safely integrate this fast-growing population into the present system. It has taken several years to accomplish and frustrated many drone operators, myself included. But when you think about how quickly we’ve gone from where we were to where we are, one has to acknowledge the magnitude of what the FAA has accomplished. Initially drone pilots were seen as a danger that needed to be squashed and limited, and now we are simply being treated as additional aircraft to be incorporated into air traffic.

If the pilots behave responsibly and obtain the correct clearance, they are allowed operate with relative freedom. Just like every other pilot. It also gives credibility to those of us who have taken on drones as a tool of our trade. We are professionals, and it’s nice that regulatory agencies recognize that and are keeping airspace safe for all of us.

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