The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is preparing for a swarm of drone applications when the first ever rule permitting small, routine drone flights goes into effect on Monday.
The FAA said more than 3,000 people have already pre-registered to take the test required to fly unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) on the very first day, underscoring the pent-up demand for the emerging technology.
To ensure things run smoothly, the agency has conducted test runs at exam sites, revamped its website, hosted a series of webinars and briefed congressional staff.
But FAA officials are warning that there could be some bumps in the road, especially if they are slammed with waiver requests to the rule - a far more timely and complicated component to process.
“Monday is a big day. We’re introducing a brand new rule,” Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA’s drone integration office, said during a congressional briefing this week. “We’ve done that before, but we don’t usually have as much interest.”
For years, commercial drone operators have been forced to apply for a special “333 waiver” exemption from the FAA if they wanted to fly unmanned aircraft systems, a process which proponents of the technology say is timely and costly.
The FAA finalized a long-anticipated rule in June that permits commercial drone use for aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds.
Under the regulation, which takes effect Aug. 29, operators will just need to register their drones online, pass an aviation knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center and be at least 16 years old.
Industries are already lining up to deploy unmanned aircraft for a wide range of reasons, from fighting wildfires to inspecting infrastructure.
Lawrence said 3,351 aspiring pilots already signed up to take the written test on Monday, while over 20,000 operators have registered commercial drones that will be able to take flight under the new rule.
Comparatively, only 5,000 drones are currently operating under the 333 waiver.
“That’s a good indication we’re going to have a lot of people and a lot of aircraft operating on day one,” Lawrence said. “We’ve been doing a tremendous amount of work preparing for this day… to make sure we’re not making the wrong kind of news on Monday.”
Part of that effort has entailed sending inspectors to each of the thousands of testing centers, where they took a mock exam in order to ensure that the system is working properly.
Another piece of FAA’s preparation strategy has been processing existing 333 waivers to pre-determine which ones will fit into the new rules, so operators don’t have to reapply.
The FAA also has ramped up its educational outreach with law enforcement, farmers, journalists and others who may want to use the technology in their line of work.
And the agency has “completely revamped” its website and tested it out on mobile phones to make sure it is compatible.
Operators will be able to apply for a waiver to the rule through an online portal if they want to fly at night or beyond the visual light of sight, which is currently not permitted.
Lawrence warned that “it may be an automated front portal, but on the back end, we’re doing a lot of things manually until we have the resources to completely automate it.”
He declined to say how many staff members will be dedicated to processing waivers, although he said “staff is growing to meet demand.” He also couldn’t offer a time frame for how long it would take to respond to waiver requests, saying it will depend on the volume.
“If we get 2,000 asking for a waiver on day one, it’s going to take a while to get through that,” Lawrence said.
The FAA is suggesting that people who don’t immediately need exemptions wait and see the conditions under which other operators get waivers, which will be posted online as they are granted.
“Hopefully, we won’t be totally overwhelmed by waivers,” Lawrence said.