Drones Uncertain Legal Status May Be Ending for Companies

Current Federal Aviation Administration policy allows recreational drone flights in the US but essentially bans it for commercial application. It does, however, give case-by-case approvals or waivers for certain commercial applications.

That permissiveness may be about to come to an end, much to business's chagrin, as the FAA plans to propose strict rules for commercial use of drones in the coming weeks. This is not an issue that consumers are likely to rally behind once the FAA does release its proposal -- a recent survey shows that most Americans are against allowing businesses to fly drones anywhere they please.

Closing the Window on Commercial Drone Opportunities

Earlier this year the FAA's rule-making ability over the issue was called into question when an administrative judge ruled that FAA lacked clear-cut authority to ban their commercial use. Companies promptly began taking advantage of the gray area with small but eye-catching drone-based campaigns and applications.

The National Transportation Safety Board made clear last week, though, that the FAA does have the authority to make these rules and now a new report in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the window of opportunity companies had been using over the last several months to try out commercial drone-based applications may be closing.

According to the Journal article, the Federal Aviation Administration will issue rules by year end for use of small drones in commercial applications.

After the rules are issued, a public comment period will follow. It could take up to two years for the final rules to be issued.

In the meantime, though, it is anticipated that many of the pilot (no pun intended) projects launched by companies could fall under the FAA's disapproval.

The Journal reports the rules the FAA is considering are much stricter than the industry would have liked.

They will require operators to have a license and limit flights to daylight hours and below 400 feet. Perhaps most onerous, the drones will have to remain within sight of the person at the controls. The agency also plans to group all drones weighing less than 55 pounds under one set of rules, dashing hopes for less restrictive rules for the smallest drones that weigh only a few pounds.

Deliveries, Videos, Ad Banners

Amazon and Google are perhaps the best-known companies experimenting with drones as an alternative to same day delivery, but a sizable number of companies are interested in the technology for similar reasons. 

FlowerDeliveryExpress.com tested a flower delivery by drone just before Valentine's Day this year in Detroit, but the company was forced to stop testing after the FAA warned it off.

Other industries have been using drones in various ways. For instance real estate brokers have been using them to differentiate themselves in the market via aerial videos of their properties. 

"With aerial videos a potential buyer can get a greater feel for the details of the property inside and out; including a sprawling comprehensive view, depth of the home, size of the lot, and how the neighborhood looks and what else surrounds the house," says Patrick Parker, owner of Patrick Parker Realty.

Another example is provided by DroneCast, which uses drones for banner advertising, much like the way small aircraft fly banners for local businesses around town. "Our aerial advertising platform acts almost like a flying billboard, using a small drone to capture attention while displaying your advertisement to viewers," its website says.

Americans appear to be of two minds about drones: they want one as a toy but many are fearful about their use on a widespread basis for safety reasons, according to a study conducted for the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies.

Close to three quarters (73 percent) of survey respondents are concerned that drones could damage property by crashing into a house. Fifty-five percent said drones could injure people by poking out an eye or cutting a finger.

Despite the risks, 21 percent of survey respondents indicated that they would be interested in purchasing a drone. Sixty-seven percent do not think that private citizens should be allowed to operate a drone even if they hold a permit and 64 percent do not want businesses to use drones.

If the FAA's final rules follow what the Journal is describing, these people may well get their wish. 

Title image by David Rodriguez Martin (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license