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Commercial Drones Declared Legal; Release The Tacocopters

from the let's-get-this-going... dept

Almost exactly two years ago, we wrote about the tacocopter, a sort of proof of concept idea for using drones to deliver products to people’s homes. Yes, Amazon got some attention last year for claiming to be working on something similar, but the Tacocopter (and Lobstercopter on the east coast) idea was the first I’d heard of anyone seriously thinking about commercial-use drones. However, the key point of our Tacocopter story was that they were illegal:

Current U.S. FAA regulations prevent … using UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, like drones] for commercial purposes at the moment.

Well, that’s no longer the case apparently. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) administrative law judge Patrick Geraghty has unleashed the tacocopters of the world by issuing a ruling that the FAA has no mandate to regulate commercial drones. The case involved the first time that the FAA had actually tried to fine someone, a guy named Raphael Pirker, $10,000 for trying to film a commercial with a drone at the University of Virginia.

The issue, basically, is that the FAA has historically exempted model airplanes from its rules, and the NTSB finds it impossible to square that with its attempt to now claim that drones are under its purview. As Geraghty notes, accepting that leads to absurd arguments about the FAA’s mandate over all flying objects:

Complainant has, historically, in their policy notices, modified the term “aircraft” by prefixing the word “model”, to distinguish the device/contrivance being considered. By affixing the word “model” to “aircraft” the reasonable inference is that Complainant FAA intended to distinguish and exclude model aircraft from either or both of the aforesaid definitions of “aircraft”.

To accept Complainant’s interpretive argument would lead to a conclusion that those definitions include as an aircraft all types of devices/contrivances intended for, or used for, flight in the air. The extension of that conclusion would then result in the risible argument that a flight in the air of, e.g., a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider, could subject the “operator” to the regulatory provisions of FAA Part 91, Section 91.13(a)….

….. The reasonable inference is not that FAA has overlooked the requirements, but, rather that FAA has distinguished model aircraft as a class excluded from the regulatory and statutory definitions.

The judge notes that while the FAA had some internal memorandum about these issues, it did not put forth a full rule, and thus it is not an actual policy. As a result, the ruling finds that the current definition of aircraft is not applicable here and thus the FAA has no real mandate over this kind of drone.

This does not preclude the FAA from trying to go through a full rule-making process to try to gain a mandate over commercial drone use, but that will involve a big political fight. It’s way easier to block something like that from becoming official than overturning it if it was already deemed the law.

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Comments on “Commercial Drones Declared Legal; Release The Tacocopters”

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41 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

While lighter than flying cars, drone pose the same problem, they have to come down, whether that is where intended, or on top of somebodies head. This makes their use over populated areas risky, especially if commercial drone are allowed to fly over populated area, so can private drones, along with attempts to use them to gain a taco.

madasahatter (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Model and toy aircraft are very small and would rarely pose a significant physical danger to those on the ground if the crash. While drones would likely be larger to carry a reasonable load any significant distance, the judge is saying go through the proper administrative procedures before issuing rules before claiming jurisdiction. In his opinion, drones in a legal limbo, obviously not a model airplane but not a piloted aircraft either. Also, the obvious question is whether a drone poses a significant physical danger if one crashed. The answer probably depends mostly on size (weight most likely) and drone airspeed.

Flying cars always had problems as piloted vehicles. There are FAA regulations covering the pilot such as training, licensing, and health. These rules are somewhat aircraft independent. Certain health conditions can ground a pilot until medically cleared. The drone “pilot” is likely sitting a ground based console so the pilot’s medical condition is less critical.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Model and toy aircraft are very small and would rarely pose a significant physical danger to those on the ground if the crash.

Man killed by his own model helicopter
I have also seen a car damaged by a small powered aircraft, about 18 inch wingspan, when it went into an uncontrolled dive. It put a significant dent into the roof.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Yes. One of my hobbies is flying model helicopters (mid-sized — 4′ long, gas-powered ones). They can indeed by very dangerous. The spinning blades (the tips of which can move at near the speed of sound) can break bones, the lead weights in the blades can be dislodged in an accident (or due to poor maintenance) and become, essentially, bullets. Not to mention the risks of powered dives. Radio interference once caused my bird to power into the ground. The engine of the copter buried itself 6″ into the earth.

However, that’s a sport copter. It is absolutely possible to make a design which is much safer (you sacrifice extreme maneuverability — which is unnecessary if you’re just delivering things). More rotors mean that they don’t have to spin as fast, etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

For use as a delivery machine, a drone needs decent weight and power, nut just to be able to carry a load, but also to be able to fly in anything other than dead calm. Also if the drone is to fly in a built up area, it had better be maneuverable, so it can deal with disturbed air around buildings. Delivery use, at least for more than a demonstration, the drone has to be able to maneuver in what are restricted spaces for flying, like somebodies yard. Outside of use for kudos, such a delivery within range of sight of an operator at an outdoor restaurant, a drone will need to have a range of many miles to be useful, which again makes for a larger vehicle.
To be useful as a delivery vehicle, a drone is also going to be dangerous if things go wrong`, probably heavy enough to cause serious injury or death if it loses power and falls out of the sky.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“a drone needs decent weight and power, nut just to be able to carry a load, but also to be able to fly in anything other than dead calm.”

Not weight (it needs as little of that as possible), but yes, it needs power. But of a different sort.

“Also if the drone is to fly in a built up area, it had better be maneuverable, so it can deal with disturbed air around buildings.”

Also true, but it doesn’t need the extreme maneuverability of sport copters. It doesn’t need to be able to perform acrobatics, to fly upside down, to fly tail down, to do loops or barrel rolls, etc.

“To be useful as a delivery vehicle, a drone is also going to be dangerous if things go wrong”

I never said otherwise. What I said was such a vehicle can be made much less dangerous than a sport bird. This is clearly true. For example, if you have two birds of similar weight and engine power, but one is a quadracopter and the other isn’t, the quadracopter is much less dangerous. The rotor speed is lower (so less kinetic energy per blade), the top speed is lower (so less kinetic energy in power dives), and the drag is larger (so less kinetic energy in free-fall).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

I picked up an ARDrone 2.0 and have been impressed with it capabilities. I took out when it there was gusts of winds and the drone was able to auto correct and stay fairly stable as it compensated for the wind. I haven’t done a lot of poking around in it yet but it has a light version of Linux for an OS and I am hoping to make some modifications to it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Yes, the capabilities of semi-autonomous vehicles are remarkable. I wasn’t going into that because it just makes a complicated topic even more complicated, but when you factor in things like birds being able to automatically perform autorotations (so they don’t just fall out of the sky even in the event of total engine failure), those kinds of birds can be actually safe for reasonable values of “safe”. Certainly safer than delivery cars.

zip says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

They could easily be designed to fly fairly safely over crowds with a few features added, such as using soft propellers or enclosed fan shrouds. I’m thinking of those dollar-store battery-operated fans that have flexible bump-rails sticking out on the leading edge of the fan blade, or soft blades that completely fold up upon impact. The obvious disadvantage of course would be inefficiency.

slick8086 says:

Re: Re:

This makes their use over populated areas risky, especially if commercial drone are allowed to fly over populated area, so can private drones, along with attempts to use them to gain a taco.

What you don’t seem to know is that most cities already have laws about where model aircraft can and can’t be flown regardless of whether they are commercial or not. We don’t need the FAA making Federal laws that should be handled at the local level.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Excellent point.

Here are a few of the basic rules I am legally required to follow when I fly. With the exception of the airport proximity rule, these are not FAA rules:

I cannot fly higher that 500 feet within a mile of an airport.

I cannot fly over crowds.

I must adhere to all noise ordinances. In practice, this means no night flying in residential areas.

I cannot fly in a harassing or threatening manner (hovering outside of someone’s window, following people, etc.)

Plus, there’s a slug of FCC rules relating to the radio equipment, but that’s not directly related to flying.

apauld (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I live in a mid sized suburban town where anything not tethered is illegal with out a special one to waiver. The cub scouts have to apply every year to shoot off their little model rockets. The statute even mentions potato cannons, which I guess is good because it keeps me from wrecking the neighborhood with my carbide powered cannons….

halley (profile) says:

As a model aeronaut, I am very happy about this ruling. It will get challenged and shape FAA powers, but I think a lot of good will ultimately come of it.

However, there is still the FCC. Many multicopter, helicopter or airplane “drone” model operators use a video downlink from the aircraft. These downlinks are often transmitting video at a higher power rating than the general public is licensed to use, or in a frequency band that the general public is not supposed to use. A common variety uses 2.4GHz at 600 mW, for example, while a typical WiFi router is 100 mW. For this, the hobbyist can apply for a standard “HAM” amateur radio technician license, and enjoy their downlink video system. Similar to the FAA rule, HAM licenses cannot be used for commercial purposes at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Obviously, there will be problems. These drones will have to avoid buildings, power lines, other aircraft, people, etc. The FAA’s stance suggests that they agree that obviously, there will be problems.

The FAA takes a reactive stance, which is not surprising for a political entity since no one wants to be blamed for any problems (understandably, because many politicians, at least in their messages to the public, focus on blaming people on the other side of the aisle).

The judge’s decision paves the way for a proactive solution where, yes, their may be some problems, but by discovering them, they can be solved in a way that makes the technology an overall benefit to society.

In the words of Thomas Edison, referring to the light bulb, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (It’s a good thing Nikola Tesla was able to help him out).

Argonel (profile) says:

I think someone should propose a law or rule to establish a firm cutoff point based on performance characteristics and public safety. I would suggest that models that weigh less than 15 pounds, have a maximum speed less than 40 MPH and have a maximum stored energy equivalent to half a gallon of gasoline should be exempt from FAA regulation. Models or drones that exceed that performance envelope could then be regulated on some level to assure public safety, but they wouldn’t need to meet the standards for manned flight.

Also instead of no commercial use of drones I think we need safety standards. Non-commercial uses would have pretty lax standards, while commercial uses need to meet stricter requirements. In any case the operator would obviously be responsible for damages if they lose control of their drone.

Alternately we can let the FAA claim jurisdiction over all commercial flight and send them after people with homing pigeons.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Uh no

“I think someone should propose a law or rule…”

No. It’s perfectly fine to NOT aid the enemy.

The FAA has no jurisdiction over model aircraft and we don’t need to help them get it.

“Alternately we can let the FAA claim jurisdiction over all commercial flight”

“We”? You and the mouse in your pocket can do whatever you like as can the FAA with congressional approval.

For now, the FAA has jurisdiction over all commercial flight… of a non-model variety. If they need more, they will get it.

When you start with “I think someone should…” and end with “We should…” or “we can let the FAA claim”… I’m thinking it’s time to focus on the legislative process, not your drug of choice.

E

halley (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I know you’re just winging it (so to speak) but your proposed rules are way off and unworkable.

A one-pound toy helicopter you can get in a shopping mall can easily fly faster than 40 MPH forward speed. Banning them bans everything.

Conversely, an 8-pound 600mm rotor hobby helicopter has only about 1/6 gallon of liquid fuel, and can kill a person who stands too close to the rotor blade while it’s in a standing hover. Your limits are way too lax there.

There is an organization in the US called the AMA. They do three things: they advocate safe flying with lots of helpful advice to pilots; they offer insurance for pilots to cover mishaps when flying responsibly; and they lobby on behalf of responsible pilots for reasonable government policy.

halley (profile) says:

Re: Drones

You are right, the word ‘drone’ has scary connotations. There’s no good definition.

A drone could be autonomous, or remotely piloted by camera, or remotely piloted by sight from the ground. It could be a hovercraft, a fixed wing plane, a helicopter, a multicopter. It could have jet turbine engines or propellers. It could have a drop payload or a projectile weapon or a laser weapon or a specialized camera. It could have GPS guidance or laser illumination guidance or be able to fly freely. It could weigh under two pounds or over two tons.

I think the only consistent traits are that it flies, it is under active control, it can return to home, and it is unmanned. If it’s on the ground it’s some other kind of robot. If it’s in space, it’s more of a probe or rocket. If it doesn’t return, it’s a missile or projectile. And so on.

zip says:

Re: Drones

Originally, term “drone” was used to denote an unmanned aircraft, that is, a plane big enough to have a human pilot, but didn’t. Although (briefcase-sized) radio-controlled model aircraft have been around for many decades, it’s only been in the last few years that they were ever called “drones” – and usually in a somewhat dark context, apparently to distinguish “working planes” from their hobbyist counterparts.

Rekrul says:

What I want to know how will the companies keep these drones from being shot down by idiots and pranksters? You know that if these things are going to be flying low over neighborhoods, there will jackasses who can’t resist using them for target practice, kids will shoot at them with slingshots and BB guns, etc.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I don’t know. If I were the system designer, though, what I’d do is fit the aircraft with GPS and a camera (both of which probably have to be there for navigational purposes anyway). When it gets shot down, I’d know exactly where and there’d be a reasonable chance I’d catch the shooter on video. Then I’d know who to press charges against.

azvttr (profile) says:

Lots of work before UAV's should be allowed in metros

1) Terrain – buildings, power lines, 50+ ft palm trees, etc.
2) Other UAV’s, birds
3) Sudden weather conditions
4) Emergency shutdown – flight control failure
5) Unexpected conditions at landing site i.e. site unavailable
6) Military grade GPS required
7) Doppler radar required

A 10 pound UAV falling from 50 ft may cause serious injury or death to a person on the ground. Falling into a busy street or freeway would not be a lot of fun either.

All that and much, much more.

However, I still like the the eventual reality.

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