FAA should rethink its rules and unlock commercial drone innovation
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On April 24, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will wrap up its first public comment period for its proposed rules allowing commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — commonly referred to as "drones" — in U.S. airspace. These rules will mark an important milestone in the path toward unlocking the untapped opportunities presented by this innovative technology. Unfortunately, the FAA's proposed rules take an overly cautious approach that could stifle innovation by heaping prescriptive regulations on a rapidly evolving technology. A better approach is to create a series of risk-based, technology-neutral rules that make safety paramount while not sacrificing innovation.

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First and foremost though, the FAA should expediently adopt new rules designed to bolster U.S. competitiveness in commercial drones. The agency's slow response to the development of drone technology has left the United States poised to lose its competitive advantage in this growing industry. For example, Amazon faced a six-month wait to get approved to test its drones in the United States, but received approval in Canada in just three weeks. And as a result of regulatory uncertainty, some U.S.-based companies have started to relocate to other countries with more permissible laws to develop and test these devices. The FAA's proposed rules should be designed to make the United States a desirable location to develop and deploy unmanned aircraft systems.

When looking at the rules themselves, the FAA should back away from its proposed restrictions on for-profit drone operations and embrace the commercial potential of this technology. Many of the commercial restrictions now under consideration make no sense. For example, the proposed rules allow drones to deliver certain goods, unless the operator charges money for the service (so you won't be getting your Taco Bell order delivered by drone). Clearly, this distinction is arbitrary — the safety of goods transported by drones does not depend on whether the person flying them is getting paid — and it has the direct effect of limiting drone business opportunities.

The FAA should not subject commercial drone operators to substantially different rules than those governing hobbyists using the same drone technology for non-commercial purposes. The regulations under consideration would exempt hobbyists from the proposed rules if they observe certain standards of practice, such as giving right-of-way to manned aircraft and not flying near airports (two criteria that commercial drones also have to abide by.) However, if safety is the primary factor, differences between commercial and hobbyist activity are arbitrary. For example, a hobbyist taking pictures with a drone presents no more risk than a professional photographer doing the same. The level of risk associated with drones does not depend on compensation.

The FAA should also create a level playing field for innovation by adopting technology-neutral rules. Where there are differences between technologies, the FAA should establish rules that recognize the risks distinct to (or irrelevant to) particular technologies. For example, the agency should treat unmanned aircraft similarly to manned aircraft, but should not require commercial drone operators to learn how to use a parachute as part of their operator certification because no one will be jumping out of the unmanned aircraft. On the flip side, the FAA should not prohibit the use of innovative features like first-person view, which allow drone operators to receive a pilot's eye view from the drone on a mobile device, to address safety concerns simply because these technologies are not relevant for manned aircraft. These technologies should be evaluated based on their merits.

Finally, the FAA should adopt a flexible, risk-based approach to addressing drone safety concerns. The proposed rules would ban certain types of operations deemed by the FAA as too risky, such as operations without visual line of sight, package delivery, flights over people who are not operating them, and flights at night. A better approach would be for the FAA to set a threshold for acceptable risk that the private sector would have to meet or exceed to operate drones. This would give the private sector more freedom to make improvements to drone technology as long as those improvements reduce the risk of an accident. This would also lead to less onerous restrictions for micro drones (i.e., drones weighing two kilograms or less), which pose less safety risk than heavier drones. By providing for a flexible, risk-based approach to regulating unmanned aircraft, the FAA will encourage innovators to work in an expedient way to reduce risk and bring better, safer products and services to market.

The FAA has the ability to usher in a new wave of safety and innovation with its rule-making for small, commercial drones. Market analysts estimate that commercial UAS will create $13.6 billion in economic value and 70,000 new jobs in the first three years after this plan is put into action. Therefore, it is important that these rules are used to promote safety, protect U.S. competitiveness, create new economic opportunities and help spur innovation.

This piece has been corrected to accurately state the size of micro drones.

Castro is the vice president for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).