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The drones are coming! This is how the FAA wants to deal with flying robots

civilian drone
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the drones are coming. U.S. Federal Aviation Administration officials released this week a “roadmap” that explains what needs to happen before drones can safely fly in U.S. airspace. The 70-page document (pdf) is quite the read … if you’re a huge aviation policy nerd. But it does contain some key tidbits of information that every American should know about before thousands of drones begin buzzing around our homes.

The first thing to understand is that the new drone rules won’t happen all at once. The FAA’s roadmap explains that these changes will happen in three phases, which will roll out over the next five years. The first step is “accommodation,” followed by “integration,” and “evolution.” Let’s see what these phases mean for all you burgeoning drone pilots out there and the rest of us, shall we?


Drones – or, as the FAA calls them, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” or “UAS” – are already being used by a whole slew of people. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have long used the General Atomic Predator drone to keep track of U.S. borders, while an increasing number of hobbyists have their own mini-drones taking off around the country.

The FAA expects as many as 7,500 commercial drones will be in the sky within the next five years.

As it currently stands, there are different rules for different types of drones. The drones you or I might fly must remain in the line of sight, and below a certain altitude. And pilots of larger drones must receive an OK from the government before operating their UAS at all, which it does on a case-by-case basis. Problem is, there is no clear set of rules that cover everyone and every new type of UAS that hits the market.

A primary goal of the FAA, then, is to establish a standard certification for UAS pilots, in the same way that airplane pilots must receive a pilot’s license. The FAA doesn’t go into detail about what you’ll have to do to get one of these UAS licenses, but they probably won’t be as rigorous as the ones need to fly people around in the air.  

In addition to the UAS pilot licenses, every drone will have to receive an “airworthiness certification,” as the FAA calls it. The FAA will continue to grant airworthiness certifications on a case-by-case basis for the next several years. At first, the limitations on these drones will be “strict,” the FAA writes, and their safety will be assessed in “very controlled circumstances.” From there, the FAA will work with the industry to develop standards for drone technology, to make sure they are safe, and to allow drone makers to build their airborne robots within a defined framework of rules.

To get to this point, the FAA plans to establish six test locations around the country where the agency can work out all the kinks related to drones, though it hasn’t yet decided where those test sites will be.


The next step is integrating these drones in to U.S. airspace. Until now, it wasn’t clear whether drones would have to fly in their own section of the sky, or if they’d be allow to buzz around with airplanes. Based on the FAA roadmap, it seems they will in fact be joining other aircraft in the same airspace – but that won’t happen anytime soon.

Predator drone
Image used with permission by copyright holder

To safely integrate drones into U.S. airspace, a whole slew of new policies, guidelines, and procedures will need to be developed, not only for drone pilots but also for airplane pilots, air traffic controller crew members, mechanics, and anyone else that fits into the complex puzzle of sending a UAS into the sky. The FAA also plans to develop a separate set of rules for small drones and larger drones, like the Predator used by Border Control.

This will involve creating new handbooks for everyone listed above, sectioning off specific communication airwaves for drones, and training everyone according to specific guidelines.

The FAA plans to cover every base before letting drones take over the airspace.

All that is fairly boring stuff, but it is at least good to know that the FAA plans to cover every base before letting drones take over the airspace.

Of course, making sure drones don’t crash into people, buildings, or other aircraft is only one part of safely integrating UAS into American life. Privacy is also a major concern, considering drones can be outfitted with cameras and sensors that have the ability to collect all types of information about people who are just minding their own business at home.

As Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) recently told CBS News, “We need to ensure that these drones take off with privacy protections attached to them. If it’s being used in a way that allows drones to spy on families in their backyards, then that’s not right.” Thing is, the FAA is more or less passing the buck on the privacy questions, admitting that it not the right agency to develop those policies. Instead, Congress will have to tackle the rules governing drones and civil liberties. 


The final section of the FAA’s roadmap deals with the evolution of drone technology. This involves training pilots and other operators in new drone technology, as well as developing advanced collision avoidance systems to help make sure nobody’s crashing into anything.

At this step in the process – we’re talking eight to 10 years down the road – UAS pilots will have clear rules for receiving certification, and the FAA will have a solid grip on what kinds of problems arise from widespread drone use.


So, what does this all mean, in a nutshell?

Well, if you want to be a drone pilot, or have big plans to start a business that makes money by flying drones, then you’re going to have some big hurdles to jump over during the next couple of years. Then, once the FAA has a grip on this whole drone thing, the process for getting into the world of drones will be a whole lot less complicated.

For the rest of us, we can rest assured that the FAA isn’t simply going to clap its hands and declare that any and all drones can fly anywhere they want. Instead, it will be a slow, meticulous process that ensures all safety measures are considered before the drone takeover.

And the drones are coming – the FAA expects as many as 7,500 commercial drones will be in the sky within the next five years, and upwards of 30,000 drones flying around within 20 years.

So put on your hardhats, people. It’s about to get busy up there.

Andrew Couts
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Features Editor for Digital Trends, Andrew Couts covers a wide swath of consumer technology topics, with particular focus on…
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