Sales May Be Up, but Commercial Drones Are Still a Regulatory Nightmare

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Police recently filed criminal charges against a Calgary man for flying a drone into the path of an aircraft at the Calgary Airport.

South of the border, the LA City Attorney’s Office filed not one but two criminal charges against men flying drones in restricted airspace.

All three cases are the first of their kind in their respective jurisdictions, but will likely not be the last. Commercial drones are taking off—pun intended—in popularity, and we’ll be seeing more and more of these small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the near future.

Drones: The good

In all fairness, drones are taking to the air for a lot of good reasons. We wrote an article a few months ago about some of the interesting emerging uses for civilian aka commercial drones; check it out for more details.

Small, remote-controlled drones are giving people in industries like agriculture, infrastructure energy, and media a cheaper, safer way to keep an eye on their operations.  

Infrastructure inspection, for instance, is set to get a lot easier. At the moment, inspecting bridges, wind turbine towers, and pipelines is costly, at about $1,500 for a 200-foot tall structure. Commercial drones will help reduce this maintenance cost to just $100.

So it makes sense that the global commercial drones market is expected to grow from a value of $112 million in 2015 to $1.05 billion in 2020, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 57%.

Drones: The bad

But—there’s always a but—while there are many fantastic uses for commercial drones, the market is not without its challenges. In our previous article, we also very briefly touched on the fact that drones are a bit of a regulatory problem child.

Drone regulations

In terms of industry-wide uses, drones are great. But when put into the hands on individuals, they can be a nuisance, liability or straight up threat. As more models go on sale at increasingly accessible prices, governments are hustling to regulate the devices to protect their airspaces.

Of course, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was one of the first organizations to propose regulations on drone use, which include:

  • Drones must weigh under 55 pounds.
  • Drone flights must take place during daylight hours and within the operator’s visual line of sight (VLOS).
  • Drones must be registered and have aircraft markings.
  • Operators must be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test as well as Transportation Security Administration background check, and hold an FAA UAS operator certificate.
  • Drones are prohibited from entering Class A airspace, which is 18,000 feet and higher. Air traffic control (ATC) permission is required to enter Class B, C, D, and E airspace. Class G is the only airspace open to drones without ATC permission.
  • The operator must always see and avoid manned aircraft during flight. In the case of a collision risk, the drone operator must be the first to manoeuvre away.
  • The operator must end their flight if a drone poses a risk to aircraft, people, or property.
  • Drones can’t be flown over people, except those involved in the flight.
  • The drone must operate below an altitude of 500 feet, and speed should not be above 100 miles per hour.
  • Drones must be kept out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas and comply with any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions.

Many other countries have laid out similar rules:

These regulations honestly aren’t enough to fully curb drone sales, but they will be a barrier to more aggressive market growth for commercial drones over the forecast period. However, with drone sales basically open to anyone with a credit card, cases like the ones in Calgary and LA certainly won’t be the last we hear of folks getting into trouble with UAVs.