Drones in the Civilian World and the Many Challenges Ahead

Tilak Ramaprakash
8 min readAug 19, 2022

Abstract

Many of us think of drones as radio-controlled toys that can be purchased in a hobby shop or on the internet for recreational fruition. While this may be true, drones also play more important roles in the modern world where their strategic uses are often overlooked. The military has long been utilizing the benefits of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Drones have been used internationally in military surveillance and counterterrorism operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. The advantages of UAV’s in the civilian sector have continued to be explored on serious levels. Future planned civilian disciplines range from the delivery of packages to law enforcement to pipeline and rail inspection. The roles of these drones in the civilian market will grow significantly in the foreseeable future. However, as those roles increase, so do the challenges.

Introduction

There are literally dozens of issues regarding drones that must be addressed. These issues range broadly from vehicle, pilot, and operator licensing to privacy and security rules. The challenges ahead that face the imminent burgeoning civilian drone industry all point to a key element that is lacking in the civilian UAV infrastructure: Standards. The looming need for standardization is overwhelming. Standards will need to be developed and implemented in all the areas of intended use (Clark, 2014). Potential uses for drones are limitless and are already under research for both private and government agencies. Domestically, UAV technology has already been used in border control, search and rescue missions, and surveillance during police standoffs. In response to the recent push to integrate drones in the national airspace system, drone use and application is expected to skyrocket in the near future to include surveillance of real estate developments, detection of forest fires, monitoring hostage situations, observing livestock and oil pipelines, and even tracking FedEx package delivery. The possibilities are endless. But without standards, growth will be limited and disorganized (Clark, 2014).

Regulatory Challenges

At this point, the only agency in existence that appears to be a logical choice for oversight is the Federal Aviation Administration only because they have the infrastructure in place for airborne vehicles and the air transportation industry. However, one may argue that simply because drones and aircraft share the same airspace does not imply that they need to be governed by the same regulator. While most can agree that whichever regulatory body is chosen — or formed — will fall under the U.S. Department of Transportation. Perhaps the formation of a new agency to provide oversight for the UAV industry may be prudent. Just as other agencies have previously been formed as per bureaucratic requirements, such as the Transportation Security Administration, a new specialized regulator for unmanned aerial vehicles may be worth researching. Applying aviation expertise from within the FAA may even be considered inimical to the rapid evolution of this budding industry. Too much regulation too soon could suppress entrepreneurial drive, creativity, and development. However, too little regulation opens the door for rapid disorganized growth that would contribute to debacles and disasters of all magnitudes. This is just one of many questions that will need to be addressed in the near future. But for now, the FAA is the sole agency charged by Congress with developing rules for private individuals and companies to operate drones in national airspace. While the precise breadth of FAA rules is not entirely clear, a framework is beginning to develop (Jenkins, 2014).

The problems that face the future UAV domain, if not properly addressed from the start, can provide for a disorganized, and potentially chaotic, growth period. As foreign competition for a segment of this uncharted industry grows, the convenience of organized and systematic growth appears to be unlikely at the moment. Although current legislation limits growth in the UAV commercial sector, all agree that changes to this are imminent. These expectations continue to fuel the sector’s research and development scope as the influx of ideas for drone use continue to rise. The idea that “when the doors open, no one wants to be left behind…” is universal.

Along with the basics of regulation and legislation come more detailed issues that must also be solved in a synchronous manner. Dozens of issues already exist and the list continues to grow. The scope of this paper allows the examination of only a few of the many.

One of the many regulatory issues that must be addressed is the airworthiness of drones. Currently, the FAA has awarded Amazon Prime Air an Experimental Airworthiness certificate to initiate its research (Mick, 2015). The certificate comes with restrictions that overshadow Amazon’s initial request to the FAA. According the FAA website, provisions of the certificate dictate that all flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in visual meteorological conditions (VMC). The UAV must always remain within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer. One significant detail of the provision is that the pilot actually flying the drone must have at least a private pilot’s certificate and a current medical certificate (FAA, n.d.).

As the industry is in its infancy, the FAA itself is at the basic stage of establishing a foundation, yet with little information to work with. Thus the certificate granted to Amazon also requires the online retailer’s research division to provide monthly data to the FAA. The company must report the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers’ instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links (FAA, n.d.). The FAA includes these reporting requirements in all UAV experimental airworthiness certificates.

The fear of these imposed restrictions may come with the further economical ramifications, most significant of which is the possibility of Amazon moving their UAV research overseas to a country with a less restrictive regulatory structure but at the cost of American jobs.

Additional regulatory issues that are sure to ensue are vehicle licensing, pilot licensing, and even operator licensing. With these adding to the growing list of contentious topics, the regulators in charge will be busy for the indefinite future.

Legal Challenges

As regulatory issues grow, so do those of the legal nature such as privacy laws. As the use of drones expand to media, questions arise such as “who owns the airspace above private property?” Although federal laws may govern the use of drones, states laws may sometimes end up restricting their intended use. Some states, such as Oregon, restrict drones from flying less than 400 feet above a property of a person who makes such a request. Idaho and Texas prohibit civilians from using a UAV to take photographs of private property as well as photography of an individual — even in public view — by a drone (Nangia, 2014). The restrictions placed by these latter two states may further complicate issues: As photographers often receive first amendment protection when taking public photos, it may be challenged that these restrictions are unconstitutional based on violation of first amendment rights. As the U.S. Supreme Court has already acknowledged that “even in a public forum the government may impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, or manner of protected speech, provided the restrictions are justified…”, it can still be expected that drone users will assert First Amendment protection for photographs taken of public areas (Nangia, 2014).

Currently, drones can be outfitted with high–powered cameras, thermal imaging devices, and license plate readers (Jenkins, 2014). In the near future, law enforcement organizations may see fit to outfit drones with more advanced capabilities such as facial recognition capabilities, which could be used to recognize and track individuals based on height, weight, age, gender, and skin color. The sophistication of drone technology might influence a court’s decision on whether domestic drone use is lawful under the Fourth Amendment. This is a question that is not only possible to arise, but quite probable. This issue further suggests the need for legislative action to ensure privacy protection from government searches. As the law has struggled to keep up with technology’s rapid growth, many other questions concerning Fourth Amendment protections to government drone surveillance remain unanswered. Furthermore, if there has been no search, no warrant is necessary. Therefore, the question of whether police need a warrant to conduct drone surveillance teeters on whether drone use counts as a search for Fourth Amendment purposes (Jenkins, 2014).

These are only two of several legal issues that must be addressed on a detailed level. As this is such a new and extremely complex industry, it should not be surprising if some issues are resolved at the Supreme Court level.

Logistical Challenges

In addition to administrative issues with the government, operators in the commercial sectors will face logistical obstacles that will offer challenges at every level. For example, Amazon aims to use drones as a delivery method for both home and business (Jansen, 2015). Initial issues of significant include designated delivery areas. Operational issues will include where to drop packages if the customer lives in an apartment building or works in a downtown high-rise building. Drone protection, battery life, and weather are more of the challenges that must be comprehensively resolved. Maintenance plans and repair, drone insurance, education for lobbyists, financing, and collision avoidance: The list of challenges is endless and must not only be addressed, but solved.

Current and Planned Research

Educational institutions such as Purdue Polytechnic Institute, Georgia Tech Research Institute, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been committed to the future of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for a respected period of time. Many commercial organizations have also firmly delved into the drone sector by committing deep resources to the cause.

Among the major publicly known, firmly-committed companies is Amazon (Jansen, 2015). As Amazon is proposing a 30-minute delivery service by drones, the current experimental certification granted by the FAA, albeit limited, paves the way for research aimed at drones flying at speeds greater than 50 miles per hour while carrying payloads of up to five pounds. Until the FAA develops a comprehensive set of regulations to govern the flights of drones, there is a current prohibition in place for commercial UAV’s. As of April, 2015 the experimental certificate granted to Amazon is one of 128 total exemptions given by the FAA. As the FAA is expected to have a basic set of regulations in place in the foreseeable future, this should allow for incremental increases in the flexibility of rules and restrictions which should in turn help further research in the UAV sector.

Two other companies aggressively moving forth with research in the commercial UAV sector is Google and DHL with their UAV parcel-delivery project and “parcelcopter”, respectively. These companies also have committed heavy resources to the development of drone-delivery. As with all other organizations researching and developing the use of drones in commercial service, they are limited by the pace of the FAA’s movement in the regulation development and implementation.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Europe’s joint aviation regulatory authority, has advanced further comparatively to the FAA in developing a balanced set of rules which focuses on both safety and flexibility (Takahashi, 2012). For this reason it is likely that at least the more advanced prototypes from companies such as Amazon, Google, and DHL will be tested and developed further in the European airspace system.

Conclusion

Regulatory reform and development is needed for the impending rapid growth in the commercial UAS industry. Although regulators have acknowledged this, the rate at which implementation of a new system will take is far behind that of the rapid technological research, development, and growth that is currently taking place.

References

Clarke, R. (2014). Drones’ challenges to public safety. Unmanned Aerial Systems Conference. 17 February 2014, Adelaide. Retrieved from: http://www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/Drones-PSA.html

FAA. (n.d.). Unmanned Aerial Systems. Retrieved from: http://www.faa.gov/uas/

Jansen, B. (2015). FAA approves Amazon drone research again. USA Today. Retrieved from: http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/04/09/faa-amazon-drone-approval-prime-air/25534485/

Jenkins, B. (2014). Watching the watchmen: Drone privacy and the need for oversight. Kentucky Law Journal. Fall, 2013, Vol.102(1), p.161–182. Retrieved from http://law-apache.uky.edu/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/9-Jenkins.pdf

Mick, J. (2015). FAA grants amazon prime air “experimental airworthiness certificate”. Daily Tech. Retrieved from: http://www.dailytech.com/FAA+Grants+Amazon+Prime+Air+an+Experimental+Airworthiness+Certificate/article37259.htm

Nangia, S. (2014). Commercial drone privacy laws may face legal challenges. Law 360. Retrieved from: http://www.law360.com/articles/500480/commercial-drone-privacy-laws-may-face-legal-challenges

Takahashi, T. (2012). Drones in the national airspace. Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law Journal of Air Law and Commerce. Retrieved from: http://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=255100081087115090125113112011011023016039060039010087100115103070068084029103072022019117103061008030027112124022096105093076043075078051054006015104029104088120105003079016086000090027100020123091000115005012099080083000074100086127124079120087011&EXT=pdf&TYPE=2

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Tilak Ramaprakash

Tilak S. Ramaprakash — Experienced Pilot with Auditor Certifications