On October 16, 2019, Utah Senator Mike Lee introduced a proposal to restrict the Federal Aviation Administration’s right to regulate airspace below 200 feet. Relative to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), this would modify the current FAA claim of jurisdiction to regulate UAVs over the full 400 feet flight zone restriction.

In effect, this designates the airspace below 200 feet as private property and gives state, local, and tribal governments exclusive rights to regulate that airspace. The space between 200 and 400 feet would be designated for the use of civilian drones, under FAA regulatory authority.

This proposal would do two things:

It reduces FAA authority over airspace at lower altitudes; and

It gives authority to local government agencies such as cities and counties to set their own zoning regulations on airspace below 200 feet. The policy making behind these local zoning regulations will take into account drone operator needs, but also the needs of private citizens for privacy and property rights.

For surveyors, accustomed to operating under potentially differing state rules and regulations governing mapping and land surveying, it is another compliance issue that could vary with geography. Some surveying, mapping, agriculture applications, and inspection projects could be subject to local rules if the UAV is intended to be used below 200 feet.

For companies planning to use drones to deliver retail merchandise, medical supplies and other goods, enactment of this proposal into law is likely to mean wrestling with different flying (or no flying) guidelines in different geographic locations. This adds complexity, but it also means that the FAA’s former bright line 400 foot restrictions are removed, in favor of two tiers within that 400-foot range.

Beyond Visual Line of Sight

There was another front of drone policy clarification where further progress is being made.

In August, 2019, the University of Alaska Fairbanks successfully conducted the first beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) drone flight in the U.S. that was approved by the FAA. 

In the University of Alaska test, a hybrid electric drone was used to inspect a four-mile section of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. The drone was outfitted with “sense-and-avoid technology” that can detect other aircraft and make intelligent decisions on what kind of threat they pose to the drone. The technology worked in concert with eight radar systems that the test team had deployed on the ground along the route.

The University of Alaska test was developed out of the need to inspect remote areas of the pipeline that are not readily accessible because the land traversed by the pipeline is remote and roadless. For the drone industry in general, and for drone operators in oil and gas, mining, agriculture and construction in particular, all of which have a need to inspect and report on remote areas of operation, the University of Alaska’s successful test was a breakthrough because it opened the door to more beyond line of sight drone flights that heretofore have been restricted by the FAA. 

“Needless to say we were all very excited and we were leading the country,” said Cathy Cahill, the director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks drone program. “That was the first [flight] where we didn’t have to have a human observer with their eyes on the aircraft. We couldn’t see the aircraft but we knew everything about the aircraft and the airspace around it. … If I want to go monitor a seven-mile long salmon stream in a canyon I would have to put people at a distance where they could keep their eyes on the [unmanned] aircraft the entire length of that seven miles. That requires flying people in or them hiking in under dangerous conditions; that’s not safer than flying the manned aircraft we’re trying to replace. So, we need to go beyond visual line of sight.” The success of this mission builds FAA and industry trust in the reliability of beyond line of sight missions for drones. Coupled with potential changes in the FAA’s space restriction policies, it also presents a need to companies operating or planning to operate drones to revise their plans for drone flights.

The recent drone breakthroughs point to several areas where companies should revisit and fine-tune their drone plans:

  • Update your drone plan for new regulations. If there are elements of your drone plan that will be impacted by FAA flight restrictions below 200 feet being revised, adjust your plan. You now will have to deal with local zoning requirements that could impact the drones you’re planning to fly.
  • Prepare for beyond line of sight drone operations in remote areas. If your plans call for extending drone use in very remote areas without roads, etc., it’s time to check in on testing/gaining authorization for beyond line of sight tests in today’s environment, and in developing drone deployment plans for the future that involve BYLOS flights.
  • Check in with legal and insurance. Extending commercial drone flights into populated areas or using unmanned beyond line of sight drones in remote areas will impact your present insurance liability coverages and also your legal responsibilities. Insurers and attorneys typically lag behind technology and regulatory breakthroughs and revisions. Before deploying drones beyond line of sight and/or into communities that may have local zoning restrictions that protect civilian privacy and property, consult your attorneys and insurance companies to ensure that legally and from the standpoint of liability, your company is within the rule of law, and operating with the boundaries of your insurance coverages.