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FAA May Have A Fast-Track Approval Process for Low Risk RCMAs By November

Published: 21/05/2014

UAVsAccording to comments made in a speech in Orlando on May 13, 2014 by Jim Wheelerchief of the FAAs unmanned aircraft division, the FAA may have a fast track approval process in place for low risk commercial RCMA applications like agriculture, film making and inspections of utilities and oil and gas facilities by November 2014.

The AUVSI, which sponsored the conference at which Williams spoke, has estimated that the unmanned aircraft industry will generate 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact once the FAA begins approving commercial operations.

This is encouraging news! I hope the FAA is capable of delivering on this. The stakes are high. If the FAA doesn't do something reasonable soon for the under 400 feet and less than 55 lbs crowd they may have a world class mess on their hands that they may never recover from.  They need to demonstrate some progress even if it's not the ultimate solution. Frankly, I'm skeptical. They have demonstrated serious incompetence as they've over promised and under delivered on everything related to RCMAs. Recently a reader that has extensive experience with the FAA told me that their motto is, "We're not happy until you're not happy."

Update as of May 22: Congress Thinks the FAA is 'Not well positioned to regulate drones.' According to a post on Motherboard:

A new report from the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee suggests lawmakers are "concerned that the FAA may not be well positioned to manage effectively the introduction of UAS in the United States" and that many in Congress believe the FAA will miss its deadline. They specifically note that the task has been complicated by the recent National Transportation Safety Board ruling that commercial drones are at least temporarily legal.

Also John Goglia, in Forbes asks, "Why can't US follow Australia's approach to small drone operations?"

Australia’s announcement last week of a notice of proposed rulemaking to allow very small UAVs – those weighing 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) or less – to operate without the need for special pilot or aircraft certification, so long as they operate under certain prescribed conditions, deserves attention. The conditions for operations without certification or approval are: see forbes article.

Update May 27: The Denver Post says, "FAA is dragging on drone regulation"

It's become increasingly clear that the major obstacle to the use of drones to assist in tasks that would lower costs and improve productivity across a host of commercial activities is not the technology but the Federal Aviation Administration.

This lumbering agency is on a slow-motion process of figuring out how to regulate commercial drone use. And we do mean slow-motion. Seven years after asserting that commercial drones are illegal, the FAA is still trying to get its regulatory act together.

Larry Lohrman

7 comments on “FAA May Have A Fast-Track Approval Process for Low Risk RCMAs By November”

  1. From Mr wheelers reported comments it looks like your FAA regards RE work as not being low risk as it was not included in the industries listed as low risk possibilites for fast tracking. I would not be getting excited just yet.....

  2. I think your assessments are completely accurate. I'm not holding my breath. The FAA is basically incompetent and not likely to improve in the foreseeable future.

  3. Aerial photography for real estate is such a small part of this that it wasn't omitted because its considered high risk, its because its not even on the radar.

  4. @Dave Birss, RE not being on the list is probably just because they are only including some samples and they aren't going to be formulating policy based on the industry. Since RE usage is going to be on platforms under 55lbs and flying under 400', there shouldn't be any reason that RCMA AP would be prohibited.

    @Greg, I've worked with the FAA on many occasions and I differ with your assessment of them being incompetent. It's a government agency, so it's understaffed, underfunded and saddled with huge amount of bureaucratic red tape that it has to be in compliance with. Add to all of that, a bunch of congresscritters second guessing them at every step and passing contradictory mandates directing what they do. Besides their primary goal of keeping air travel safe for both passengers and those on the ground, they have to develop policies and procedures for the burgeoning New Space industry companies such as Virgin Galactic and Xcor that will be flying passengers to space (and bringing them back if all goes well). Little RCMA's, while potentially dangerous to aircraft in some areas and a deadly menace to power lines and rodeo spectators, are not a big priority. There is much more pressure from industry players looking to fly large UAV's in airspace used by private and commercial aircraft for remote sensing, military, law enforcement and The Man®. Blame Amazon for stirring up a completely uneconomic side show with their flying delivery service and all of the Mee Toos. Jeff Bezos' boys thought it up and the FAA is going to have to write some guidelines to cover it.

    100K jobs and $82 billion? That sounds like typical politician hyperbole. I am more likely to believe stories that US companies will be building UAV's offshore and contracting with Indian companies to build "flight centers" to remotely operate the craft. RCMA for AP will be mostly made in China just like everything else. Sigh.

    The two factors that seem to get ignored are insurance and local regulations. Forget the FAA, states and cities may be more restrictive and many are considering and passing laws right now. While a couple of insurance companies have claimed to offer commercial RCMA coverage, at least one has been outed as having a fat loophole that lets them avoid paying out claims. It's been my experience that the actual policy isn't available until some time after one has contracted for coverage. One of the first few paragraphs in the legal text states that the printed and delivered contract is the final word and any claims or assurances made by the agent are not binding. Things should get better once the FAA publishes some formal guidelines. Insurance companies can then reference the FAA regulations and deny claims if the RCMA was operated contrary to those regulations. It's the same way that auto insurers will deny coverage if you get in an accident while driving drunk, fleeing from the police or breaking other laws.

  5. @ken, when people talk about large organizations like the FAA, large manufacturers, companies etc., they often do it in a non-personal way. I too have worked with the FAA and your comments are spot on, "It’s a government agency, so it’s understaffed, underfunded and saddled with huge amount of bureaucratic red tape that it has to be in compliance with." So I guess it depends on how you define incompetent, for all the reasons you point out at best the FAA is ineffective at the worst it is incompetent.

    Some of the best people I have met work for the FAA but I've also seen the downside where an FAA bureaucrat that had no qualifications to make a determination denied a COA or STC simply because they could and we literally had to wait for that person to retire before it was approved. There's no accountability, no reasonable adjudication process, your often literally at the mercy of a single individual. Unfortunately the ratio of good qualified reasonable people to unqualified unreasonable pin heads is off the charts.

    The FAA started debating regulating drones more than 15 years ago and seemingly are no closer to a resolution toady. So you might want to give some thought to why most of the RCMA's are made outside the US., its not because its cheaper, it has more to do with mitigating risk. Why would I invest in the equipment, people and infrastructure here in the US when with the stroke of a pen the FAA can put me out of business? They have actually already done that once when they weren't even authorized to do it.

    So I think Greg's characterization of the FAA being incompetent, in context of RCMA regulations is correct.

  6. I too am waiting for SOME clarification on this. Working with drones for ariel shots in this area would be a great way to get into the luxury market.

    As to the FAA being incompetent, I think that this is part of the self-fulfilling prophecy that those who believe in "minimalist" government indulge in. They claim that government is incompetent, so they see fit to starve vital agencies. Then they point to understaffed, overworked agencies as evidence that they were right all along.

    Bottom line - people who work in government (and especially those who fund it) need to actually BELIEVE in it for it to work...

    I'm not holding my breath on this one either.

  7. Its not about a minimalist government, its about an effective, manageable and accountable one. The FAA is not underfunded, it had a huge surplus in the GA fund five years ago. If their overworked its because of the bureaucracy that they created. This is not a new problem, like the VA, it has been a serious problem for more than 15 years and the government you want people to believe in hasn't been able to solve these issues.

    I don't know if you read the initial document that started the process for regulating drones but much of it had nothing to do with commercial AP from MR's and the little that did mentioned things like being able to autorotate for a safe landing. MR's can't autorotate and anyone who's flown them knows that. So I have a difficult time placing my faith in an agency that has continually demonstrated its inability to function and that has political appointees that have zero experience managing anything remotely to do with transportation.

    @Ruthmarie, you right about one thing, over the past three years I pointed out every chance I had that what the FAA was doing was unconstitutional and they did not have the authority to impede my civil liberty to earn a living doing RCMA. Although I find the recent ruling against the FAA mildly amusing, I hardly feel vindicated nor do I point to the ruling as if I was right all along, but its not incumbent on us to prove that RCMA is safe, or that its legal, its up to the government you say we should BELIEVE in to prove that it isn't and that it is indeed illegal. They failed.

    Why shouldn't you be allowed to shoot AP with drones to provide your clients with a better product thereby getting you more work in a higher end market. Isn't that how its supposed to work? Who's harmed by that? Why do so many people who have no experience with AP, never been injured by a MR, probably never even seen one have such strong opinions against them? Questioning policies and the need for regulation does not make someone (me) an anarchist, nor does it mean that I don't think that commercial AP from drones will be regulated.

    A friend sent this link to me, about a guest speaker who is being recognized for his contributions to aerial video. Congratulations to this guy, I wish I had the opportunity to do AP the way that he does. They closed Yosemite to drones so I can't shoot there but he can shoot in State and National Parks? Why? He works for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. I'm not pointing out that they are understaffed or overworked, I'm pointing out the hypocrisy.

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