If the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has its way, commercial drone use will soon be expanded in the US, but it may be more regulated than many in the drone industry would prefer.
Regulations currently being drawn up by the FAA for commercial drone use, will reportedly include a nighttime restriction on drone flights and a pilot license requirement, despite the fact that the crafts are unmanned, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal citing sources "familiar with the matter." Under these guidelines, drones would also be required to fly below 400 feet and remain within sight of the operator.
FAA spokesman Les Dorr told VICE News that the Wall Street Journal did not get its information on the impending regulation from the FAA and he wouldn't comment on whether the reported rules were consistent with what the agency was working on. But drone proponents are expecting the first draft of FAA commercial drone regulation to look a lot like what the newspaper laid out on Monday.
"You have to take it with a grain of salt because we haven't seen a draft yet, but this is what we expect to see," Michael Drobac, head of the trade group Small UAV Coalition, told VICE News. "They sort of got this backwards. There will be a lot of tension because other countries are moving forward rapidly with their regulations."
The public should get its first look at the FAA rules on commercial drones by the end of the year, when the agency will publish the regulations for public comments, Dorr said. Up until now, the US government has allowed recreational drone use, but has mostly forbidden drones for commercial purposes, except when users are granted exemptions on a case-by-case basis.
"We would expect them to expand commercial drone use," Dorr said about the regulations, but wouldn't discuss any specific rules the FAA has been discussing.
Despite a lack of confirmation on drone regulations from the feds, proponents of commercial drone use responded strongly to some of the rumored regulation, especially the rumored pilot license requirement.
Drobac said that sort of regulation would potentially allow someone with no drone experience — but heavy flight experience — to use drones while excluding someone who has used drones extensively, but hasn't flown a plane.
"There is a way to think creatively about pilot certification and we have to have some training," he said. "There are ways to be creative about this and there are ways to create a certification process that won't stagnate the whole process."
These rumored regulations are expected to apply to all drones weighing less than 55 pounds, causing anxiety for drone operators who thought an extra-small segment of drones would get special consideration.
Smaller drones, like the popular, three-pound model seen below, are especially useful for commercial purposes like filmmaking, farming, and photography, and are purported to carry less potential danger of running into aircraft or buildings than their larger competitors. Boeing, for example, makes a 40-pound, gasoline-powered drone.
But as the reports stand, it would appear that the FAA isn't distinguishing between small drones and really small drones, at least right now. That's not to say that rules the FAA eventually proposes couldn't change before they actually take effect.
Dorr said that the drone rules will be open for public comment at the end of the year for a period of at least 60 days, during which the FAA will gather feedback. After the public comment period ends, FAA officials will reconvene to tweak the rules based on public responses. The more feedback received, the longer the tweaking period likely will last, he said.
When asked if he's expecting to get a strong response on the FAA's drone regulations, Dorr said "I wouldn't be surprised at all."
Despite fears about restrictions in the FAA's drone regulations, drone supporters are eager for commercial craft to be permitted to hit the open skies. Some have been asking for rules on commercial drones for more than five years.
"After continued delays in the rule making process, the release of the proposed rule will bring us one step closer to realizing the many societal and economic benefits of (unmanned aircraft systems) technology," Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in a statement. "That said, as an industry we believe it's important that the forthcoming rule enables the many civil and commercial uses for UAS technology in a safe and responsible manner and without being unnecessarily restrictive."
Follow Payton Guion on Twitter @PaytonGuion.