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February 16th, 2015
What do the FAA’s new UAS regulations portend for mapping and monitoring?

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The much-anticipated regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) was made public yesterday on the FAA website, and on a call with reporters. The agency has been under increasing public as well as legislative pressure to ensure that American companies don’t miss out on business opportunities because of restrictive regulations.

This first list of regulations on UAS under 55 pounds will be open for public comment for 60 days and isn’t expected to be finalized for actual practice until early 2017. The regulations provide a framework of safety-oriented restrictions while also yielding on prior points of contention, most notably on the requirement that the operator must be a licensed pilot. 

It should be noted that these regulations relate to the opening of airspace to any user. Several mapping and surveying firms have gained exemptions to fly missions related to mapping and monitoring for demonstration, training and development purposes, and these exemptions for varying commercial use cases, with differing restrictions, will continue. This cautious new set of restrictions for more widespread commercial use of UAS is both practical and advanced as it places an emphasis on the desire to foster innovation and not hold back an emerging industry.

Flexible, Yet Confounding

The initial response from UAS industry insiders is one of cautious optimism, although there are some points that need clarifying. The separate classification of UAS operator rather than pilot is a yielding point as it opens up a great deal of opportunity without the expensive and time-consuming task of training and maintaining a separate class of pilots. On other points, however, there is much to be worked out.

The elements of the restrictions related to where, when and how are rather challenging, particularly in an urban context. For instance, the requirement for daylight only and not to fly over people not directly involved in the UAS mission means that many if not most urban data capture scenarios are out. There are quite capable sensors that capture mapping details at night and could avoid people by doing so, so certainly exceptions will be needed. The requirement that airport flight paths and patterns be avoided (with an area five-miles in radius around airports out of bounds) is also a challenge for urban applications. Finally, the requirement to maintain line-of-sight at all times makes it nearly impossible for such applications as a infrastructure inspections, where you may be required to lose sight due to limited safe vantage points.

Tiered Approach

The fact that there is a tiered approach to UAS classes borrows from Canadian guidelines and provides for further opening of regulations related to both more professional platforms larger than 55 pounds and another whole class of micro-UAS that are under four pounds. The FAA has asked for more comment on micro UAS that may gain greater access around flight paths as studies have indicated that small birds of such size do no damage to aircraft upon impact.

Heavier UAS are both more harmful and more capable, and may continue to require the need for a licensed pilot. The FAA has opened up the use of this class of vehicle since 1990 for such important missions as firefighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, law enforcement, border patrol, military training and testing and evaluation. It’s this class that appeals most to the mapping industry as it directly relates to the efficiency and capacity of today’s manned mapping platforms, and regulation guidelines on this class of UAS is still forthcoming.

Frustrating Efficiency

The line-of-sight requirement is somewhat troubling for the efficient capture of mid to large-size areas, such as farms or large construction sites, and as mentioned above for any complex urban infrastructure. Fixed-wing aircraft are unfairly restricted as they can easily and efficiently capture much larger areas than can be seen from one spot, except for flat rural expanses such as on farms. One can imagine bright golf-ball colors or enlarged shelled craft coming about in order to increase visibility or perhaps mobile towers that improve the vantage points.

The FAA has taken a balanced and cautious first-step approach to broader commercial use with this regulatory framework that relates to the largest growing commercial sector of this upstart industry. Yes, the pace has been slow and it will be some time before the path is entirely clear for these companies. Yes, there are some issues and a good deal of exceptions that will need to be worked out prior to becoming law. Yes, there are technological advancements needed for greater autonomous control that would improve safety and ease restrictions.

The FAA has advanced the dialogue by removing doubt and have eased the brakes for further applications and advancements. The more exciting aspect from a mapping and monitoring as well as a business perspective is the pathway for innovation. Time and again the American business climate and entrepreneurial spirit have led to technological advancements. It will be interesting to watch the skies open up to this ingenuity in the years to come.


Press Release – DOT and FAA Propose New Rules for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems

FAA Fact Sheet – Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)

Presidential Memorandum: Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

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