New U.S. drone rules get positive reviews from researchers

A researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, prepares a drone for a survey flight.

DOE Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

New U.S. drone rules get positive reviews from researchers

New U.S. rules on drone operations are getting a general thumbs up from researchers who rely on the unmanned aircraft to collect data and make observations. That marks a shift from a few years ago, when worried researchers went to court to block Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) drone regulations that they argued were overly restrictive and would harm academic science.

The final FAA rule, released by the White House on Tuesday, seems to have alleviated many of those concerns. (You can read all 624 pages of the final rule here). The new regulations are “fantastic, just late,” says biogeographer Benjamin Heumann of Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, who uses drones to map biodiversity and invasive species and had been critical of early versions. “It’s nice to have the FAA come forward with some new rules that kind of follow some common sense. … This is where we should have been 2 years ago.”

The new rules outline how people can legally operate what are officially known as small unmanned aircraft systems (sUASs), defined as drones that are fewer than 25 kilograms and operate at 160 kilometers per hour or less. In general, they forbid operators from flying the aircraft over people who are not participating in their operations, and above 122 meters in altitude. Flights must be conducted during the daytime and the aircraft has to remain within the pilot’s line of sight. And drone pilots must be at least 16 years old and take an online test to earn a government permit known as a remote pilot airman certificate. Students or research team members who don’t hold such a certificate can fly a drone if they are under the direct supervision of someone who holds a certificate.

The final rule has been years in the making. This past February, FAA issued a draft for public comment and received more than 4600 public comments, including many from universities, individual researchers, and scientific societies.

Many of those commenters had been critical of earlier FAA efforts to regulate drones, which the agency worries pose a growing threat to commercial aviation and privacy. But many researchers said FAA’s approach was preventing them from fully exploiting a valuable new tool that has a wide range of uses, from surveying archaeological sites to observing weather, fires, and wildlife.

One prominent critic was engineer Paul Voss of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. In 2014, he coordinated a protest letter to FAA signed by nearly 30 researchers that raised a number of concerns. It noted, for instance, that FAA considered researchers who wanted to fly drones as “commercial operators,” meaning they needed a pilot’s license in order to fly even small drones, and had to apply to FAA on a case-by-case basis to get permission for each project. Such cumbersome rules created an “undue burden” for researchers, says Voss, and even led some, including Voss, to terminate the use of drones in their research.

As a result of such concerns, in 2014 the Council on Governmental Relations—a Washington, D.C.–based group that represents 188 research universities—filed a lawsuit against FAA to challenge existing drone rules. And two allied associations—the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, both based in Washington, D.C.—presented a letter to White House officials, arguing that university researchers needed a “timely, workable mechanism … to secure FAA approval to conduct important research and instructional activities utilizing sUAS technology.”

The Obama administration appears to have responded to that request in crafting the new rule, Voss and other researchers say. “It’s a good step forward,” he says, adding that it may even prompt him to start using drones again.

One change that has pleased many researchers is that researchers at private institutions are now treated the same as those working at public schools; previously, FAA authorization to operate drones for research was available only to researchers affiliated with public colleges or universities. Another welcome change, researchers say, is an FAA decision to drop special rules for drones carrying a payload, such a camera or scientific instrument, so long as it is “securely attached” and doesn’t interfere with flight. And FAA has said it will create an online portal to make it easier for researchers and others to request special waivers to the rules for unusual projects.

The new rule will take effect in August.