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Ready For Takeoff: The Rise of the Drones

Before your district invests in the use of unmanned aerial drones, here is some food for thought.

Not long ago, the idea of the skies being filled with flying robots capable of conducting detailed and varied tasks would have sounded like science fiction.

However, the use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)–more commonly referred to as drones–is not only happening now, but its commercial growth is “currently the most dynamic growth sector within the aviation industry,” according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

While the possibility of having your packages from Amazon or a pizza from Domino’s delivered to your doorstep within minutes has been grabbing headlines recently, there are many highly practical uses for drones that could help Colorado special districts save lives and prevent damage to property.

For example, drones are already becoming a useful tool for fire departments that have the tremendously dangerous task of putting out wildfires. With their ability to fly in thick smoke that would keep traditional aircraft grounded, infrared camera-equipped drones can spot wildfires, gauge their movement, and identify problematic hotspots–all without putting anyone directly in harm’s way.

Drones could also be used to respond to emergencies, as demonstrated recently by Austrian grad student Stefen Riegebauer, who devised a system whereby drones could deliver defibrillators to heart attack victims much faster than an ambulance could arrive on scene. 1 This could also potentially include food packages, life preservers, water, and even maps and survival gear.

Another practical application could involve using drones to surveil public utilities in remote or hard-to-reach locations. In fact, oil companies in Alaska were among the first (and remain among a very small handful of) businesses to be granted commercial licenses by the FAA after successfully lobbying the government to allow them to use drones to provide aerial surveillance of remote pipelines and oil rigs. 2

Drones could also be used by special districts to ensure the safety of visitors to parks and wilderness areas, assist in search and rescue operations, or even just to capture breathtaking aerial images and videos for promotional purposes.

Despite all the exciting possibilities, commercial drone operation has been almost entirely banned in the United States while the FAA mulls over how to safely incorporate them into our complex and crowded airspace.

The FAA finally announced their long-awaited proposal of the rules and regulations for commercial drones in mid-February. Under the new proposal, all drones would have to weigh less than 55 pounds, could fly at a maximum speed of 100 mph, and cannot be flown at an altitude above 500 feet. However, with special Air Traffic Control clearance, drones could be flown at altitudes up to 18,000 feet.

Drones would also have to remain in the line of sight of the operator at all times, could not be flown above people who “are not directly involved in the operation,” and would be restricted to flying only during daylight hours. Camera attachments that allow for closer flight observation by the operator would be permitted, but would not be required. Finally, drone operators will have to be at least 17 years old, would be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, and would be required to pass an “aeronautical knowledge test” before being permitted to fly.

The FAA’s proposal is not a final rule, and is open to public comment and feedback. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta even indicated that more permissive rules could arrive in the future. “What this represents is another step in a long process,” he said. “This is not the final word on the full scope of UAS operations.” 3

Having already missed a Dec. 31, 2014 deadline to propose these rules, experts are predicting that the FAA is also likely to miss September’s deadline to finalize the rules. At a congressional hearing last year, the General Accountability Office said it doesn’t expect rules to be finalized until 2017, and Huerta and Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx wouldn’t commit to any specific timelines, indicating they expect a large volume of public input during the 60-day open comments period that could impact future rules. 4

When the rules finally do take effect, FAA officials estimate that 7,000 businesses will get drone permits within the first three years, and within the next five years 30,000 small unmanned aircrafts will be used for commercial purposes. 5

It’s likely that the final federal regulations will include minimum liability insurance coverage requirements, which will be a complicated and unprecedented challenge for insurance carriers. This is because drones combine many attributes of aircraft, motor vehicles, satellites, and computer systems. But unlike aircraft and satellites, which usually cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to launch and operate, drones are already available to purchase for just a few hundred dollars. 6

With tens of thousands of drones set to fill the skies in the next few years and so much about the specifics regarding commercial drone regulation still up in the air, eager drone operators and insurance providers don’t have much choice but to wait on regulators for additional guidance. This process is expected to take several years still, and we’ll be sure to keep you up-to-date on any developments as they unfold. 7

Here are the newly-proposed FAA rules. You can add your voice to the conversation and submit your comments to the FAA here.

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