My post last Friday (Making Money with Drone-Based Businesses) was long on enthusiasm and short on facts. Thanks, as always, to our fantastic commentariat for helping me get up to speed. The story of drone entrepreneurship is, in fact, emerging, but the technology and the willing entrepreneurs are mostly in place, already, and the action, for now, is about the law and how it’s changing.
As things stand, to legally operate an unmanned aircraft in US national airspace for other than recreational purposes, or at altitudes above 400 feet, requires a special certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA does not issue these for commercial use, though it has issued some dozens for experimental purposes and some hundreds to public agencies like the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.
This lawsuit from the Electronic Frontier Foundation over FAA disclosure of certificate-holder information provides a dense but well-researched summary of the law as of January 2012.
The FAA Fact Sheet on Unmanned Aircraft Systems makes their position clear:
The introduction of UASs into the NAS is challenging for the FAA and the aviation community. UAS proponents have a growing interest in expediting access to the NAS. There is an increase in the number and scope of UAS flights in an already busy NAS.
The design of many UASs makes them difficult to see and adequate “detect, sense and avoid” technology is years away. Decisions being made about UAS airworthiness and operational requirements must fully address safety implications of UASs flying in the same airspace as manned aircraft, and perhaps more importantly, aircraft with passengers.
Finally, this piece from the AP’s Joan Lowy gives a good sense of the outlook:
Congress has told the FAA that the agency must allow civilian and military drones to fly in civilian airspace by September 2015. This spring, the FAA is set to take a first step by proposing rules that would allow limited commercial use of small drones for the first time.
[Thanks, Adam, Nikoli, Scott, Andrew, Chris Kean, Alan Dove, and Daniel Kim!]