Logan Campbell - Logan@Aerotas.com
The question of whether or not it is legal to use drones commercially is one we hear regularly from clients. It is hotly discussed on the internet and in various political and legal forums. Unfortunately, there is not a clear answer -- there are two answers, and which one applies to your business depends on how comfortable you are with risk.
First, a little background. The huge potential benefit of commercial drones has persuaded congress and the FAA to create rules that will allow businesses to use drones safely and legally. However, the rule-making process has taken over four years, and final rules still are not expected until later this year. Meanwhile, the progression of technology has led to consumers buying over 1,000,000 drones for non-commercial purposes. Recreational drone use is generally legal under a set of rules that were developed for RC pilots decades ago. This contradiction between legal recreational use and restricted commercial use of the exact same technology has caused significant tension.
Now for the first answer. In the strictest possible interpretation of the current law, it is usually illegal for businesses to operate drones, unless they go through the lengthy 333 exemption process and ensure that all their operators hold pilot licenses. This level of regulatory burden and compliance cost destroys the economics of most commercial drone operations, making drones a bad investment. This means that businesses -- especially small businesses -- are currently unable to use drones legally in the strictest interpretation.
However, the real-world answer is a bit more nuanced. The regulations that are currently on the books are scheduled to be replaced by more lenient ones, probably in June. The basic framework of the new regulations has already been announced, and the most burdensome parts of the current rules, including the 333 exemption process and pilot license requirement, will be going away. Further, the FAA seems to be aware that most commercial drone operations are being conducted safely, and even lacks the manpower and ability to enforce the current rules if they wanted to. Because of this, they have only attempted to fine one commercial drone operator since 2012.
What this means for commercial drone operators and our clients is that as long as they understand the risks they are taking and operate safely and responsibly, it might still make sense to fly drones for their businesses today. At Aerotas, we recommend to our clients a set of operations and procedures that are generally safer and more stringent than the new proposed laws, and have been proven effective in the field. If you fly safely and in accordance with the rules coming later this year, there is little chance that you will attract any negative attention from the FAA.
Ultimately, using a drone commercially is similar to driving 70 mph in a 65 mph zone. Is it strictly illegal? Yes. But if you are driving safely, following all other laws, and generally being a responsible operator, there is no significant risk and the highway patrol will wave you by. This has allowed many businesses to take advantage of the benefits that drones have to offer, from cost saving on current operations, to safety improvements by taking personnel out of dangerous situations. Drones hold huge potential to improve many industries, and their benefit is often so great that it outweighs the legal risks.
Are you interested in learning more about how to operate commercial drones safely? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Logan is the founder and CEO of Aerotas. He graduated from Harvard Business School in 2015 and brings experience in a broad range of industries, including agriculture, real estate, and finance. A lifelong tinkerer and avid UAV enthusiast, Logan also has hundreds of hours of flight experience over a broad set of different UAV types.