Drone Restrictions Repealed, Private Companies Take Over Air Traffic Control

The popularity of recreational and commercial drones has skyrocketed recently, but the tech has outrun the regulations and procedures involved with managing them. They’re catching up now, however.

With the increasing popularity of commercial drones, especially delivery drones, regulations will be put in place to govern the use (and prevent the misuse) of the increasing number of UAVs we can expect to see. But real progress here won’t be seen until those regulations are in place, helping to ensure the safety of people on the ground.

Drones will see more real-world applications as the regulations progress (and maybe even before they arrive). This will likely take place piece by piece over the next few years. More and more commercial drones will be filling the skies, perhaps limited to industrial areas at first but expanding ever more to residential areas.

Image credit: DJI

To Register, or Not To Register?

In December 2015, the Department of Transportation passed a law requiring all drone owners, commercial and non-commercial, to register their aircraft. Since then over 820,00 drone owners have registered, a number far larger than most people expected to see.

But as of May 19, 2017, that law has been overturned in part and non-commercial drone owners no longer need to register their vehicles. Commercial drones will still need to be registered, but if you just want to fly for fun you won’t have to jump through any hoops anymore.

This is the result of a lawsuit filed in January 2016 by John Taylor, a model aircraft enthusiast. The court ended up ruling that the requirement to register went against a 2012 law called the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. This law prevented the passage of laws that restrict the use of model aircraft, and drones count as model aircraft.

But it’s unlikely that this situation will remain as it is. The 2012 Act protecting model aircraft is set to expire in September of this year, and some members of Congress are talking about introducing new laws to deal with the abundance of UAVs in our airspace.

Image credit: BusinessInsider

It may sound like less restrictions are good for everyone, but this repeal isn’t necessarily a good thing. The requirement to register came along with a bit of drone education, something that has been sorely lacking in this community. Registering was probably making recreational drone use safer.

That’s exactly what Brendan Schulman thinks. He’s head of policy at DJI, a leading high-end drone retailer. He said as much in a private email to the news site Recode. “The FAA’s innovative approach to drone registration was very reasonable, and registration provides for accountability and education to drone pilots,” Schulman said. “I expect the legal issue that impedes this program will be addressed by cooperative work between the industry and policymakers.”

One of the major hurdles to widescale commercial drone adoption is the lack of a coordinated system to manage all those little aircraft, keeping them on safe trajectories. But that’s exactly what is developing now.

Drone Regulations Being Privatized

There are hundreds of thousands of manned aircraft in the U.S., and it takes a sophisticated air traffic control network to manage them. With more than twice as many drones in the sky, we’ll need a whole new system to manage everything.

Over 100,000 new drone owners were registered in the first three months of 2017 alone. The number of active drones is expected to grow rapidly, and we’re only counting the registered users — ignoring everyone who hasn’t bothered to register their drones. The FAA’s current estimate is that by 2012, we’ll have 3.55 million non-commercial UAVs and 442,000 commercial UAVs cluttering our skies.

Just recently, on June 5, President Trump announced his endorsement of a plan to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system, citing a lack of progress on the part of the previous administration to upgrade the system. Instead, he wants to put that job in the hands of private companies. Some big names are already working on their own drone air traffic control systems, and they’re expected to work under regulations set by the FAA. There are also initiatives to let communities decide how they’ll handle their drone airspace.

Private companies are primarily focused on drone delivery of parcels, making the shipping process much cheaper and more efficient. Drones can perform a wide variety of other commercially-viable tasks, like aerial photography and surveying of various kinds. Many small companies see them as an opportunity to disrupt large industries with the latest low-cost, high-efficiency technology. But their efforts towards the creation of a nationwide air traffic control system will benefit the commercial/recreational drone industry as a whole.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has a division called Project Wing which has been testing an air traffic control system under the guidance of NASA and the FAA. They recently conducted a successful test in which five drones (of three different models) were controlled by a single platform. Controlled automatically by the system, the drones were able to navigate on their routes and avoid collisions with each other.

Image credit: Engadget

Other large companies are working on air traffic control systems of their own. Amazon has their own initiative, as you’d expect. NATS, a provider of air traffic control systems in the UK, is working on a partnership with their Civil Aviation Authority. JD.com, an Amazon-like store in China, has already been using delivery drones for some time, and are working on the challenges involved in piloting multiple aircraft safely to their destinations.

There are many hurdles on the road to effective drone regulations that will open up the skies for commercial usage. For one, the switch to privatization will shake things up and is likely to slow down progress. This switch is expected to take at least 3 years.

Also, many of these organizations are working on different systems. They’ll need to be compatible to form an effective nation-wide network. Like railroad tracks, they need a shared standard so they can communicate information between each other.

There are many obstacles at low altitude that can interfere with communications and drone activity, and they need to be dealt with in advance. Most people don’t want drones flying directly over their homes, and some are even shooting them down. But despite these challenges, there’s no going backward: drones are here, so we’d better learn how to live with them.

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