Regulatory

FAA Restricts Airspace for Drones Over Military Facilities

By S.L. Fuller | April 7, 2017
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The FAA has, for the first time, instituted airspace restrictions that apply to unmanned aerial systems (UAS) only, it said. Effective April 14, flights up to 400 feet within the lateral boundaries of 133 military facilities will be restricted. This decision was made in conjunction by the FAA and the U.S. Defense Dept. Operators who violate the new restrictions may be subject to civil penalties, criminal charges or other enforcement action.

“There are only a few exceptions that permit drone flights within these restrictions,” said the FAA, “and they must be coordinated with the individual facility and/or the FAA.”

The Transportation Dept. and the FAA are currently evaluating options to implement a process to accept petitions to prohibit or restrict drone operations over critical infrastructure and other facilities. The FAA also said it is considering additional requests from federal security and intelligence agencies for restrictions.

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While airspace restriction over military facilities seems relatively reasonable, it’s no secret that the FAA has been grappling with drone regulation, in general. In a recent poll taken during a Frost & Sullivan webinar on the commercial drone market, 50% of participating attendees pegged “regulation, or lack there of” as the biggest challenge to the commercial drone industry. (Technology limitations got 25% of the vote, while “public privacy concerns” and “flawed business plans” each garnered 13%.) But just as a military facility airspace restriction is easy to understand, webinar presenter Michael Blades understands why the FAA is taking its time with regulations.

“The FAA is concerned about safety, and they should be. Personally, I don’t hold anything against the FAA for slow-rolling this because the first time a drone flies down an engine and causes the death of a couple hundred people, it’s all going to come down on the FAA,” Blades, senior industry analyst for aerospace, defense and security, told R&WI. “But from what I understand … they’re not properly staffed or funded to deal with a technology that’s changing so rapidly and being accepted and used and transforming the market so rapidly.”

Whether the answer lies within infrastructure development like UAS traffic management, or technology like ADS-B Out, remains to be seen. It could be a combination of both. Blades said the main thing the FAA lacks is data on risk. If best practice is for regulations to come out of testing and data, those tests need to take place before any rules are published. That will, more likely than not, take time.

“It’s just a matter of testing and having backups and coming up with standards, and it’s going to take a while,” said Blades. “There are a lot of hurdles that we need to get over in order to make this low-altitude traffic management a reality. I think the answer is going to have to come from the industry.”

At least in the U.S., the industry has been formally invited to brainstorm how to integrate drones into the airspace. The Drone Advisory Committee comprises representatives from companies like Amazon, UPS and DJI, along with associations like Helicopters Assn. International (HAI), Professional Helicopter Pilots Assn. and National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. So far, the committee has given direction to two out of its three subcommittee task groups.

While subcommittee meetings are not open to the public, the main committee is set for an open meeting May 3 in Herndon, Virginia.

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