Not an Airplane Pilot? You Won't Be Flying Commercial Drones

Not an Airplane Pilot? You Won't Be Flying Commercial Drones
A DJI Spreading Wings S900 multi-rotor drone
Photograph by Chip Chipman/Bloomberg

Here’s a regulatory riddle no one has yet solved: Does it take an airplane pilot to fly a small drone?

Right now there’s no simple route to using a drone legally in U.S. airspace for commercial purposes. But no shortage of industries expect to make unmanned aerial vehicles—and their human pilots—a part of the future workforce. The list includes everyone from real estate developers and electrical utilities to farmers and filmmakers. As the Federal Aviation Administration finishes its first draft of new rules this month, business interests have closely monitored requirements for drone pilots. If regulators regard the person at the controls as akin to a private pilot, it would mean upwards of 40 flight hours at a cost of up to $10,000, limiting to pool of workers qualified for the job.

The training provision is central to new rules expected to be released for public comment by year’s end. In their current form, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week, the drone regulations would include a private pilot licensing mandate, along with limiting flights to 400 feet and only in daylight. The FAA already required trained airplane pilots when it granted permission in September for seven Hollywood production companies to shoot aerial footage with unmanned drones, the only major exception to the current commercial drone ban.

Private companies, of course, see little similarity between a 20-pound drone with no passengers and a small airplane. “To compare these two is to compare apples to oranges,” says Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition and a senior adviser at the Washington (D.C.) law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. His lobbying group is funded by about a dozen companies, including Amazon.com, that are building UAVs and related navigation technologies to field drones in commercial enterprises. Amazon, for example, sees drones as a potential delivery mode for online purchases.

“Being able to fly a Cessna has nothing to do with flying a UAV,” says Tim Adelman, a partner with New York law firm LeClairRyan who specializes in aviation regulation and is a certified flight instructor. “The FAA understands that.”

The FAA had no comment on its small UAV rules, which are still being prepared, spokesman Les Dorr said. The rules are expected to be released by the end of the year, followed by a comment period. That’s when commercial drone operators will try to kill the pilot licensing requirement and press the FAA for a less-stringent standard.

Needless to say, companies such as Amazon and Google, which want to deploy drones as part of their business ventures, do not want to hire large numbers of pilots; they accuse regulators of stifling the industry’s potential. Other nations have less onerous restrictions, and Drobac says commercial drone fleets will be operating soon—just not in the U.S.

Earlier this month, for instance, Transport Canada announced a liberalization of rules for UAVs weighing less than 55 pounds and effectively ended regulation of those less than 4.4 pounds. “You’re going to see it all overseas—in the near term,” Drobec says of commercial UAV work. “Coming soon to a country near you.” He describes what he sees as a “disconnect” between the FAA’s rule-making and the technical advancements in UAV radar, navigation, and safety systems.

Others argue that the FAA’s conservative approach is warranted considering the challenges of figuring out how to integrate unmanned aircraft into crowded U.S. skies, particularly when it comes to ensuring safe communications between drone operators and air-traffic controllers. The agency also has been charged by Congress to consider national security when it certifies UAV operations, and one advantage of mandating private pilots is that federal background checks are part of the licensing requirement.

“One can be frustrated, one can wring their hands about the pace this is proceeding, and it’s a pointless exercise,” says Mark Dombroff, an attorney at New York’s McKenna Long & Aldridge who advises would-be commercial drone operators. “The reality is that if one drone … gets entangled with an airplane in this country, everything stops.”

He and others predict that, eventually, the FAA will give the industry what it wants: drone operators who will be certified as their own class of airman, distinct from pilots who fly manned aircraft. The drone operators would be trained to communicate with air traffic controllers but avoid the dozens of flight hours most private pilots need before they’re able to receive FAA certification.

Dombroff, a private pilot himself, calls for a drone operator certificate that “doesn’t require flight time in a fixed-wing aircraft.” He envisions a few days of classroom instruction at a certified flight school and passing an FAA proficiency test. Background checks could be handled separately and without much bureaucratic trouble.

In the industry’s nascent days, however, the early adopters of corporate drone fleets could find themselves needing a few good FAA-certified private pilots.

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