Long-awaited rules on drone use, issued last week by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), will clear the way for greater business activities with the small, pilotless flying devices in the US.
But they also are likely to dent early plans by some Irish enthusiasts to make Ireland a centre for drone development and experimentation.
An Irish proposal to make a low-population region such as the west of Ireland a development and test zone for drone companies – which has had interest and support from IDA Ireland and Fine Gael TD and former minister of state Ciarán Cannon, amongst others – in part hinges on Ireland's taking a more liberal approach to drone regulation than most other jurisdictions and being a "first mover" in the area.
But the new FAA proposals were touted as being "the most flexible regime for unmanned aircraft 55 pounds or less that exists anywhere in the world" by FAA administrator Michael Huerta. They were also broadly welcomed by drone enthusiasts and the nascent drone industry.
Drones are attracting plenty of investment and business interest. One US fund alone – the UAS America Fund – has $2.2 billion in investment money targeting the drone sector. The EU also sees their potential, with a study by Eurocontrol and EuroCAE predicting that there will be up to 70,000 drone-related jobs and an industry worth €14 billion, by 2017.
However, other observers are more conservative. Deloitte has predicted that 2015 will not be the year of the drone, as too many issues still hobble large-scale adoption, including unreliability (“drones crash”), as well as safety, regulatory and privacy concerns.
Even enthusiasts acknowledge that many drone operators – both recreational and commercial – are ignorant of regulations or deliberately flout them. A rising number of near-miss incidents with passenger planes has also caused concern.
A drone nearly collided with a jet at Heathrow airport last December. The FAA also said last November that it was receiving about 25 reports a month from pilots who had spotted drones, or nearly collided with them, in airspace and at altitudes where they are forbidden.
Until now, the US has been in the strange position of pioneering drone development and investment, but having regulations that lag well behind consumer and industry interest in using the aircraft, which can range in size from just a pound to military craft the size of small planes.
Previous FAA regulations had made it almost impossible to get permission to fly drones – referred to in the US as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or systems (UASs) – for commercial purposes. The US Congress had mandated updated regulations by this year, but the 195-page draft FAA document still has to go through a public comment phase and final drafting before adoption, probably in 2016.
As in Ireland, use of drones in the US was governed in part by older regulations that didn’t envision this form of technology, hammered together with ad-hoc provisions. Neither country had regulations specifically designed to address amateur as well as commercial drones and their potential applications, as well as their safety and privacy implications.
Current Irish regulations from the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) are similar to but slightly more restrictive than the proposed FAA rules. They allow recreational users to fly small drones under 20kg – which the IAA refers to as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) – under the same guidelines as model aircraft, meaning users do not need special permits or training.
In Ireland, both hobbyist and commercial users of drones cannot fly them above 400 feet or at night, and they must be in line of sight and away from populated areas and airports. Commercial users must also comply with more stringent rules, especially if they wish to use the drone in, say, a city environment.
“When you use your RPAS for any other [than a recreational] purpose, including for commercial, Government or research, you must hold both an ‘aerial works permission’ and a ‘permission to operate an RPAS in Irish airspace’. Both of these permissions must come from the IAA,” it states on its website.
In addition, commercial users who do not hold a pilot’s licence must complete an RPAS training course from an IAA-approved facility.
The FAA proposals allow drones up to 55lb in weight to be flown up to 500 feet in altitude during daytime under line of sight control but away from airports and populated areas. Commercial users need a certificate from the FAA, which doesn’t expire, but also must pass a test of aeronautical knowledge every two years.
Among those dissatisfied with the proposed rules is Amazon, which is developing a delivery system that utilises a fleet of drones. But the new rules will not – at least for now – allow automated, out of line-of-sight drone flights or flights in populated areas.
In a statement, Amazon said it may move its drone research to a country with more open regulations: “We are committed to realising our vision . . . and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need.”
However, Huerta has stressed that the new rules are a starting point and would likely evolve over time.
has issued a presidential directive that stipulates federal agencies must disclose drone use and how any data collected by them is used.
It states in part: “[T]he Federal Government will take steps to ensure that the integration [of drones into national airspace] takes into account not only our economic competitiveness and public safety, but also the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties concerns these systems may raise.”
The new FAA rules were generally welcomed by US legislators, but some expressed concerns that they did not offer adequate privacy protection for citizens.
Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in a statement that the rules stopped short "of ensuring that the strongest safeguards are in place to protect privacy and promote transparency . . . We need strong, enforceable rules for both commercial and government activities that require transparency about the collection, use and retention of data collected by drones before they take flight."
In Ireland, data-gathering by drones would fall under the provisions of EU data protection regulation. However, it must be noted that current legislation was not designed with the camera surveillance capabilities of drones in mind.