Everything You Need to Know About Your Business-Class Drone

Flying robots are awesome, and maybe even a great business model. But are they legal?

National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
March 19, 2014, 8:23 a.m.

Jeff Bezos isn’t the only one who thinks drones will power to­mor­row’s busi­nesses. But as more com­pan­ies in­cor­por­ate drone de­liv­ery or pho­to­graphy in­to their plans, it’s still un­clear what they’re al­lowed to do.

“There’s a lot of mis­in­form­a­tion and mis­un­der­stand­ing in the [drone] user com­munity,” ac­know­ledged FAA spokes­man Les Dorr. The agency wants to clear up the con­fu­sion. So here’s a help­ful guide:

I have a bril­liant idea for how drones can help my busi­ness. Am I good to go?

Not un­less you’re op­er­at­ing in the Arc­tic. So far, the only op­er­a­tion that has re­ceived the ne­ces­sary Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion clear­ance for com­mer­cial drone use is a com­pany that con­ducts pre­drilling en­vir­on­ment­al sur­veys in the Arc­tic. So, prob­ably not you.

Clear­ance for com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions “re­quires a cer­ti­fied air­craft, a li­censed pi­lot, and op­er­at­ing ap­prov­al,” ac­cord­ing to the FAA’s Eliza­beth Cory. The agency has been stingy with the op­er­at­ing ap­prov­al so far, and that’s un­likely to change un­til it gets more time to weigh con­cerns and troubleshoot po­ten­tial prob­lems.

But I just read that a court made drones leg­al now. What’s up with that?

Yes, a Na­tion­al Trans­port­a­tion Safety Board judge ruled against the FAA earli­er this month, es­sen­tially say­ing it doesn’t have the au­thor­ity to po­lice the un­manned skies. But the agency ap­pealed the fol­low­ing day, and you won’t be fly­ing any­where un­til things get settled by the NTSB. “The ap­peal has the ef­fect of stay­ing the de­cision,” Dorr said. “We were con­cerned that it could im­pact the safety of the na­tion’s air­space.”

I’m still OK if I fly be­low 400 feet, right?

Sorry. The 400-foot threshold was put in place for hob­by­ists. If you’re us­ing a drone to de­liv­er products for your busi­ness or take pic­tures you plan to sell or use for pro­mo­tion­al pur­poses, it doesn’t mat­ter how high you fly. The Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, bus­ted for tak­ing spring-train­ing pic­tures with a drone, ar­gued that the ma­chine flew lower than most of their pop flies. It doesn’t ap­pear to have helped their case.

So drones can’t help my busi­ness at all?

Not really. You can do what some busi­nesses have done — an­nounce a bril­liant (if far from feas­ible) drone-de­liv­ery plan, wait for the FAA to shut it down, and en­joy the free pub­li­city when it does. Dorr de­clined to spec­u­late on how many drone busi­ness mod­els are de­signed more for at­ten­tion than im­ple­ment­a­tion.

OK, it’s not leg­al — but will the FAA catch me?

It de­pends. It’s cer­tainly not easy for the agency to be aware of every small air­craft, but once your busi­ness drone be­comes well-known enough to ac­tu­ally be prof­it­able, it will prob­ably come to the FAA’s at­ten­tion. “We typ­ic­ally find out about com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions or un­safe op­er­a­tions,” Dorr said. Even for ones that don’t make the news, “people see one and they tell us.”

But, really, will I get in trouble?

You’ll prob­ably get a warn­ing. The FAA has only tried to levy one fine so far, and that was for reck­less fly­ing. “Our first goal is to get them to stop,” Dorr said. “Most of the people have been co­oper­at­ive…. We typ­ic­ally will only pur­sue a civil pen­alty in a case where care­less and reck­less op­er­a­tion is in­volved.”

The en­tre­pren­eurs be­hind a beer-de­liv­ery scheme and a flower drop-off plan said the FAA of­fi­cials who shut them down were po­lite and un­der­stand­ing. Giv­en the con­fu­sion over what the rules are, it doesn’t seem the agency is eager to pun­ish mis­in­formed busi­nesses.

So when will I get to fly my busi­ness drone?

Many people think the FAA has to have reg­u­la­tions in place by Sept. 30, 2015. The agency has already said it won’t meet that con­gres­sion­ally man­dated dead­line, and it takes is­sue with those who say it’s hold­ing up the sched­uled in­teg­ra­tion of drones in­to the air­space. “We have in­ter­preted [the con­gres­sion­al dir­ect­ive] to mean that we have to have a plan [by 2015], which we do,” Dorr said. “That does not mean all the rules have to be in place.”

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