Matt Heard

Software developer and philosopher in Berlin
28 May 2015

Playing Catch-Up With Commercial Drones

Originally posted at Justice in Time.

It sometimes feels like every other new project on Kickstarter is a drone (or “unmanned aerial vehicle”) of some kind. A crop of drones have popped up, and are now following you with HD cameras as you pull off tricks on your BMX bike. If you want something remote-controlled, you could buy a palm-sized plastic quadcopter from a bargain bin in your local toy store.

Remotely piloted helicopters and model planes have been available for decades, but recent advances in artificial intelligence and simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM) algorithms have made autonomous drones more useful and exciting to tinker with. In the United States, the hobby of flying small vehicles has been effectively unregulated. The FAA provides some “guidance” for operating model aircraft for recreation under Section 366 of Public Law 112-95 (the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012) but this is technically not a “regulation”. The FAA apply a light touch and defer to community-defined conventions for the personal use of model aircraft.

As drones become cheaper and easier to pilot, many hobbyists are discovering opportunities to make money everywhere they look. As many as 30% of hobbyist pilots are looking for ways to turn a profit. Many hobbyists have tried their hands at taking photos and videos for weddings, mapping buildings for real estate listings, and even surveying entire fields for tracking crops and livestock. The FAA is very permissive of recreational drone piloting, but if you try to turn your hobby into a business venture, they will come down on you as hard as an octocopter that has run out of battery. Jayson Hanes from Lutz, Florida received a stern letter from the FAA because the recreational videos filmed from his drone were uploaded to YouTube and had some commercials autoplay before them. Even if your drone was flown for recreational purposes but filmed something newsworthy, you could not sell that footage to a news service because that would make the drone flight retroactively commercial.

Until last year, the FAA treated all commercial flights of unmanned aerial vehicles as if they were manned. This included requiring all vehicles to be individually registered and licenced, which could take months, and all flights to be individually approved with submitted flight plans. If you were building an autonomous drone and were testing your changes to the AI iteratively, you would need to submit a new flight plan for each test flight after each minor change to the source code. In the tech industry, where companies can fail if they are days behind their competitors, the slow approval process for commercial drones would dampen the spirits of anyone to build a speedy startup out of them.

Companies such as Amazon have had to take their experimental projects overseas. Amazon’s Prime Air announcement video was filmed in Canada and a lot of the development and testing of their delivery drones has needed to be done outside of the United States.

Since last year, the FAA has been thawing in response to the ardent hobbyist community looking to make a living off their tinkering and piloting skills. In March, the FAA announced that companies that already had commercial drone licences were no longer required to submit flight plans for flights below a ceiling of 200 feet, as long as they remained within line-of-sight of the operator. In May, the FAA made further announcements that some companies were going to be allowed to operate outside of that line-of-sight and even one company was allowed to fly drones in urban areas.

It will still be a few years before the FAA regulation of commercial drones starts to settle into something accessible and reasonable. The impending future of clouds of autonomous drones swarming through our skies will have to wait. Until then, we can watch quirky music videos straight filmed with commercial drones, even if we had to send OK Go to Japan to make them.

The image above was remixed using the following source image: