An alternative approach to small drone regulations?

Writing at Aviation Today, authors Henry Perritt, Jr. and Eliot O. Sprague make some interesting suggestions for a more practical, alternative approach to FAA regulations for small, line of sight drones (what they call “microdrones”): Treat them as a consumer product, like a cell phone or lawn mower.

They begin with a stunning admission from the FAA:

In May 2014, Jim Williams, head of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) office, told the Small Unmanned Systems Business Expo that general regulations for microdrones would not be promulgated until after 2020. Congress, in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, mandated that such regulations be effective no later than 2015. This much of a delay beyond the congressionally mandated deadline invites a lawsuit telling the FAA to move forward quickly.

The reason it will take so long is that the FAA assumes that it will begin with existing regulations for manned aircraft and adapt them line by line, to the peculiarities of microdrones.

Instead, the authors argue,

the agency should take advantage of the capabilities of microdrone technology to enforce certain limits on flight profiles autonomously. Such an approach would focus FAA energy on defining what limits should be built into drones commercially marketed, relieving it of detailed regulation of airmen and detailed flight rules to be enforced in the conventional way.

Taking a cue from the FCC’s regulation of cell phones, the authors suggest that the FAA require that microdrones have certain limitations and capabilities built into their hardware and software. For example:

The most basic rules to be encoded into microdrones are already agreed on. First, a height limit is necessary to keep microdrones away from the airspace in which manned craft fly most of the time. Under the proposed approach, legal microdrones must have a navigational mechanism – a combination of barometric pressure sensors and GPS navigational systems – that would not permit them to fly above 400 ft. AGL.

Second, microdrones can be flown only within line of sight. In order to keep them there, microdrones must have a built-in radius limit of, say, 1,500 ft. horizontally from the DROP.

As a further prerequisite for certification, microdrones must have a return-to-home feature that could be triggered by the DROP, and which would be automatically triggered by loss of signal. This also might be triggered by an indication that the DROP has become inattentive, kind of like the “dead man control” on railroad locomotives.

Many microdrone operators would probably not be in full agreement on these proposed limitations. We imagine, for instance, that operators would not be happy with the FAA imposing an arbitrary maximum horizontal radius to enforce line of sight. But, on balance, this seems to us like a preferable approach to insuring that both commercial operators and hobbyists are able to use off-the-shelf technology without having to go through the cumbersome process of obtaining traditional FAA certifications.

What do you think?