Should the FAA Relax Drone Regulations?

Author: Rene Garcia


Once Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or “drones” became a popular emerging technology, it was inevitable that the United States government would draft safety regulations for them. This is unsurprising, considering the many horror stories regarding near collisions with commercial jets, as well as reports of drones spying through windows of average citizens. However, drones also serve important roles in commercial operations that help keep workers safe, and at least one group is arguing for drone regulation to be reexamined.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems Can Be Very Helpful

While drones pose some safety risks, they also offer safety in ways that only their specific technology can provide. For example, in January 2018 Australian lifeguards deployed drones to swimmers in distress because the drones could reach the swimmers faster than the lifeguards could. Once on-site, the drones dropped off inflatable life preservers and rescued the swimmers. Other potential use cases include helping firefighters by monitoring fires or helping injured people by delivering medical supplies.

Earlier this year, we explained how drones were keeping workers safe on job sites:

Another practical application for drones is any situation that might expose a worker to environmental hazards, like dangerous chemicals, exposed powerlines, unstable terrain, and more. For example, a poisonous gas could be leaking from an unknown source inside a large factory. A drone could navigate along the pipes to search for the breach. In more dire situations, a drone could be part of the disaster recovery efforts, surveying damaged areas that have become unsafe for workers.

Despite this, the FAA has strict rules on drone-use, which may be interfering with progress and integration of UAS technology in commercial settings. Enacted in 2016, FAA regulations regarding drones include rules on how high drones can be piloted, flying over unprotected people, and more. These safety standards seem practical, but are they too conservative?

Consensus Study Report on Drones

In June 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a study on UAS that was sponsored in part by the FAA. The report was titled Assessing the Risks of Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems into the National Airspace System and was compiled by the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. The abstract reads in part:

The fear of making a mistake drives a culture at the FAA that is often overly conservative with regard to UAS technologies, especially given that UAS technologies do not pose a direct threat to human life in the same way as technologies for manned aircraft. Because risk avoidance behavior is often rewarded at the FAA even when excessive, staff may feel that allowing new risks could endanger their careers even when that risk is minimal and does not exceed established safety standards.

To summarize, the National Academies concludes that too much safety in the short term is preventing broader safety progress in the long term. For example, the strict ceiling requirement prevents drones from being used to examine the tops of cell phone towers. Instead, a worker will have to climb up there to observe any damage.

As such, the report recommends the following to the FAA:

  • Within six months, undertake a top-to-bottom change management process aimed at moving smartly to a risk-based decision-making organization with clearly defined lines of authority, responsibility and accountability.
  • Within one year, establish and publish specific guidelines for implementing a risk-based process for certifying UAS and aircraft, and granting operations approval.
  • Identify classes of operations where the level of additional risk is expected to be so low that it is appropriate to base approval of those operations on requiring insurance in lieu of having a separate risk analysis.

In response to these findings, the FAA issued a statement that agreed with the report. "The report confirmed that the FAA executive team has a consistent approach to risk management. The specific recommendations are aligned with FAA’s ongoing efforts and we see them as an endorsement of our efforts and encouragement to accelerate our efforts particularly in the area of change management."

It’s unclear how closely the FAA will follow the recommendations of the National Academies if at all, but the response to the report is encouraging. When safety is a priority, it isn’t enough to clamp down on emerging technologies for short term peace of mind. Instead, supply chains should embrace new platforms that help them manage long term safety. A big part of managing risk within your supply chain is having complete visibility. Avetta helps the world’s leading organizations manage the health & safety of their contractors by providing pre-qualification, document management, auditing, training, insurance verification, and more. Our cloud-based software allows companies to manage long term safety by providing complete visibility within your supply chain.

Learn more about Avetta’s dedication to the health & safety of your contractors.

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