The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) reports that close calls between conventional aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or “drones”) have increased during 2014 to more than 40 per month over earlier reports of 10 such incidents in the months of March and April. Some of these incidents have occurred in the busy airspace surrounding Los Angeles, California, Washington, D.C., and John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Some of these conflicts have arisen because untrained operators of recreational drones are unaware of FAA’s guidelines governing such use. Those guidelines ask, among other things, that “hobby” drones stay away from civil aviation, below 400 feet AGL, and at least 5 miles from airports. However, as FAA prepares to release its highly anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for small unmanned aircraft systems, the focus is not on hobbyists, but on commercial operators.
Operators of commercial drones, unlike “hobby” drones, are currently required to obtain FAA preapproval prior to operating. This requires commercial UAS operators to submit Petitions for Regulatory Exemption under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, § 333 (“FMRA”). The parameters of the proposed small UAS regulations, due to be released later this month, must be in accordance with the express provisions of FMRA, and will contain provisions requiring, among other things, that drones stay outside of the established perimeters of commercial airports. A recent decision of the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) confirmed FAA’s authority to implement such regulations (as if such confirmation, in addition to a Congressional mandate, were necessary), by overturning the decision of an Administrative Law Judge in Pirker v. Huerta. In that case, the Administrative Law Judge held that FAA did not have the regulatory authority to fine commercial UAS operators for violation of FAA regulations until such regulations are formalized, a position with which NTSB vehemently disagreed.
Until the Proposed Small UAS Regulations become final, which may take quite some time following a notice and comment period, the only path to operation of commercial UAS is through the approximately 120 day process of requesting exemptions from current regulations pertaining to manned aircraft which FAA is construing as applying equally to drones. Several exemptions for companies in the film and oil drilling industries have already been granted, along with almost pro forma exemptions for law enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol operations. A number of additional petitions are currently pending.
In summary, no serious accidents have yet occurred in the United States as a result of a drone interfering with manned aircraft operations. However, as the number of unmanned aircraft systems operators continues to grow, it is clear that a comprehensive set of well-defined UAS regulations is necessary to facilitate Congress’ ultimate goal of integrating UAS into the national airspace system.