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Building Around Drone Regulations

Recently, senator Dianne Feinstein introduced the Consumer Drone Safety Act, a proposed law meant to prevent potentially deadly collisions between drones and manned aircraft.  Unfortunately, it would require onerous technological demands on many consumer and commercial drone models, dramatically increasing their cost and feasibility.  Naturally, industry groups have lobbied heavily against this legislation, and its future is uncertain.  Even if the bill were to pass, it would be 18 months before a final rule would be published.  This is merely one more example of how quickly and frequently drone regulation can change, and how difficult it is for businesses to plan around them.  However, planning around regulations that do not yet exist is possible, it just takes a good understanding of the entire industry.  

The first step in building a drone program in an uncertain regulatory environment is to know exactly how you are going to be operating the drone.  There are a lot of relevant factors around knowing the amount of area you plan to cover, altitude you will be operating at, proximity to potential hazards like airports or military installations, size of the aircraft you will need, and how much direct control a pilot will have over the aircraft.  Even the most broad sweeping regulations will have to contain exemptions for certain things, whether it is toys or traditional manned aircraft.  

Once you know the style of drone you are going to fly, you can reasonably guess the likely regulations that will be needed.  For example, if you are flying a fixed-wing aircraft more than 400' above ground level, you will almost certainly need to ensure it is equipped with technology that can detect other aircraft and broadcast its own location to nearby planes and helicopters.  However, if you are flying a multirotor above private land at 200', you will likely need GPS and compass guidance with failsafe software, but it is highly unlikely that you will need full airspace integration.  

Some of these deductions come from common sense, some come from understanding all of the conflicting pressures on the FAA rule makers, and much comes from seeing the development of UAV legislation in foreign countries.  From all of this, it is clear that regulations will be different depending on the weight of the aircraft, the speed it will be flying, its capabilities, and its end usage.  It is not necessary to know what every drone law will be, only the likely rules that your product will have to follow.  

For the vast majority of users, a thorough understanding of the regulatory environment allows for a good enough estimation of what laws will look like in the future.  The minutiae will be different, but only a select few companies will operate on the edges of these regulations.  Clear and concise regulation in a timely manner would be a boon to the drone industry.  However we can't expect that anytime soon.  In the mean time, drone programs can still be profitable for most customers with a strong understanding of what the laws will be.