Science Flyers: My comment to the FAA regarding proposed new drone regulations.

I submitted the following to the FAA regarding docket number FAA-2015-0150: Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Comments can be filed online, but I also sent an actual, physical letter. If you care about the regulation of drone in US airspace, you have until April 24, 2015 to submit you own.

I am a marine ecologist based in Virginia, with plans to operate small Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the conduct of marine ecologic research.

With regards to the FAA’s recently proposed regulations for the Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, I find that the vast majority of suggested restrictions and requirements to be both reasonable and not particularly onerous for those wishing to operate UAS’s for commercial purposes. I commend the FAA for taking a pragmatic approach to UAS regulation. In particular, I support the requirement for a comprehensive knowledge test, which will be separate from and less expensive than a full pilot’s license. I also appreciate the recognition that UAS technology is advancing so quickly that a certification of airworthiness for specific airframes will place an undue burden on commercial pilots and force them to operate vehicles several generation behind the state of the art. I also approve of a special exemption for “microdrones”, which have significantly a lower safety risk and allow UAS pilots additional freedom in their use of very small vehicles.

I approve of the requirement that operators maintain visual line-of-sight, however, in the proposed regulations, there are make no provisions for autonomous flight. Autonomous flight dramatically changes the relationship between the aircraft and the operator and is an essential component of ecological surveys, allowing drones to fly straight transects and pinpoint sampling sites. This points to a more specific problem with the proposed regulations: in current form, there is little clarity regarding the role of scientists and other researcher in relation to UAS use. Will ecologists fall under the same restrictions as commercial drone pilots, or will they be treated more similar to hobbyist?

I urge the FAA to adopt a “Science Flyer” certification, similar to the American Association of Underwater Scientists “Science Diver” program. To wit, science divers have enhanced training requirements over recreational SCUBA divers, but less than professional commercial divers. A Science Flyer program could span a similar gap, with more training requirements than a hobbyist but fewer restrictions than a commercial UAS operator and could also provide additional training and certification to allow for autonomous operation.

Finally, the requirement that UAS users go through a TSA background check before being certified seems wholly unnecessary. Not only will this add extra expenses to UAS operators and add 6 to 8 weeks to the certification process, but, it does not improve national security in any meaningful way, because there are no restrictions on buying or building UAS’s, only flying them, and hobbyists are not required to undergo any certification. If someone wanted to threaten national security with a UAS, they would simply not apply for a commercial license.

The vast majority of commercial drone users are almost certainly going to be photographers, many of whom will not be full-time photographers, but will, like many freelancers, be supplementing their income. Which means that they will be able to make a reasonable, if tenuous, case for operating a model aircraft recreationally and skip the entire certification process. The more complex and onerous the process, the more people will try to find loopholes to get out of it, and a TSA check will only serve to discourage some borderline commercial operators from undergoing commercial training and certification.

I want UAS operators to be safe and responsible. I’d actually prefer that all UAS pilots, including hobbyists, undergo a basic safety course, in much the same way that most states require boaters to take a US Coast Guard approved boating safety course. If it could be done online, even better. A TSA review would simply discourage a subset of drone pilots from pursuing certification without adding any value to national security.