The FAA now has jurisdiction over paper airplanes. So what does that mean?

A few months ago, Startup Policy Lab attended a luncheon in San Franciscoon the current state of affairs regarding the commercial use of drones and the future of legislation. Following the event, Charles Belle, Startup Policy Lab’s Executive Director, did a Q&A with CameraLends*, a startup working in the drone space, to talk about how existing aircraft regulations now apply to drones.

We tweaked it a bit, but here’s the core of our conversation:

What does the recent NTSB ruling really mean?

Lets get the issue that confused people out of the way, the FAA does not care about regulating paper airplanes. Instead, we should understand the NTSB ruling from the regulator/attorney perspective. Put simply, the ruling clarified regulatory powers and the FAA’s duties and responsibilities. And that’s not a bad thing.

Now we can get to the serious business of defining some ground rules (see how I did that?). Finally, in and of itself, the ruling is unlikely to lead to any substantive changes, with the caveat that Congress may always pass new rules in the future.

How will companies that lack exceptions for violating commercial drone rules be handled? What will they be charged with?

Quick answer: the FAA will not go after every company developing and using commercial drones.

Longer answer: It looks as if the FAA will deal with companies as they have in the Pirker’s case — focusing on enforcement against operators who function in a careless or reckless manner. It was emphasized that the key in Pirker was the reckless disregard with which the “pilot” operated his drone. Allegedly, there were many complaints about very dangerous flying through tunnels, and at people, etc.

The real concern is safety: don’t be a #BadPilot like in Pirker. Think about others. The FAA does not have the bandwidth to go after everyone and general enforcement is not their primary concern.

Also, the FAA has begun granting more exemptions under Section 333. Companies can and should speak with a qualified attorney (there are a growing number of practices in this area) about how to apply for that exemption.

Is there a future where you need a pilot’s license to fly a drone?

60/40 yes. 60% because it’s likely. 40% because things are still in flux.

At some point an individual might need some type of license, not necessarily a pilot license, but something equivalent. There is no definitive answer yet.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see some type of registration/DMV requirement so that the FAA can trace individuals for liability purposes. Luckily, we have models for this kind of regime so it should not be too complicated — emphasize “should” with fingers crossed.

There are on the order of 1000 companies using drones for commercial use in the US, and the vast majority don’t have exemptions. Will the FAA actively pursue companies breaking this regulation?

Very unlikely. There are too many. In fact, the concern is whether individuals are engaging in reckless and dangerous behavior (see above). Part of the concern is that unsafe flying before the rules are promulgated could screw it up for everyone. And the big fear is a drone crashing into a plane. #AvoidAirfields

What’s the 60 second takeaway?

Drones — or as the FAA likes to say “UAS” — are here to stay and the FAA knows that, even if they missed it on the first go round.

That said, there are some significant issues around safety, liability, and privacy; areas where deep thinking is occurring. This is the real cause of the slow development of regulations. But to be fair, there is an obvious need to erect a clear regulatory framework that will support innovation.

In sum, regulations are in flux, but policymakers seem to understand the urgency and practicalities involved, if only because the technology has become fairly ubiquitous, demand is off the charts, and the world is forcing regulators to act. We anticipate some rough patches, but compared to other battles between innovation and regulatory regimes, we are moving in the right direction.

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*Article edited and reposted from CameraLends