Lisa Ellman, a former White House senior advisor on technology and now counsel at the law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge, told an audience of company executives at a meeting of the Bay Area Council in San Francisco on Monday that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has sent a draft of new rules governing the use of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) to the White House for review. "The rules are literally being written as we speak," Ellman told the group.
According to Ellman, the rules were sent on October 25 and were being reviewed by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which plays a key role in the drafting of federal regulations. The review period is generally 90 days which means the new rules could be issued by the end of January.
Ellman's comments and the news about pending FAA action come at a time when the use of drones for both commercial and private use is exploding in communities across the nation and worldwide. This has led to increased reports of near misses with airplanes and growing concerns about privacy as police departments begin to acquire this remote flying technology.
"It's really important to build consumer trust in this area," said Ellman. "But nothing is set in stone yet."
Questions about what is permissible in drone flight and what is not have been a source of friction between drone enthusiasts and government policy makers. While leery of increased government regulation in their evolving field, the drone industry has been frustrated by the lack of clear guidance from the FAA.
"We are late to the party," conceded Ellman, who pointed out that Canada has already issued rules country-wide governing drone use. The Canadian government issued their regulations in October which provide height limits and prohibitions on where drones can be flown.
There is currently a temporary approval process in place for commercial drone use. As described by Ellman, the FAA is accepting what are known as "333 Petitions for Exemption" which grants limited use of U.S. airspace for drone flights.
Seven filmmakers were the first to file for these exemptions and they have all been granted since late September. Another batch of exemptions is expected to be approved soon.
Aside from producers of the next Hollywood blockbuster, other exemptions expected to be approved are for commercial uses such as crop dusting or power line inspections. But Ellman did not believe that Amazon will receive approval for its widely publicized drone delivery service anytime soon.
The FAA's reluctance to grant exemptions to Amazon has not been greeted favorably at the e-commerce site. There were new reports yesterday that the company is now planning to move their drone delivery pilot program overseas.
Non-commercial use is currently governed by a basic set of rules that require drone pilots to keep their aircraft under 55 pounds and avoid interference with manned aircraft in the area. They must also give notice if they are operating a drone within five miles of an airport.
There is also a growing concern about privacy in drone use, something that will likely not be addressed by the federal government. "The FAA has no inclination to deal with anything concerning privacy," said Ellman.
This has left it up to state governments to fashion some control over intrusions by drones into the personal lives of citizens. One state that has already taken a step in this area is California which passed a bill this year that is designed to penalize the paparazzi press who use drones to record private activities of celebrities from above. Still to be addressed by policy makers is how all of the data that drones can collect will be handled.
In her remarks yesterday, the former White House official expressed a belief that the government remained committed to fostering policies that encourage innovation in the drone arena, a process she terms "polivation." Ellman urged technology executives to communicate their knowledge and concerns to policy makers.
"The government really needs your help about these things," said Ellman. "For example, what is the suite of tests that would show that a drone is safe?"
To highlight this point, Ellman delivered a talk at TEDx in Boston last month in which she staged a demonstration where a drone flew directly at her, but stopped suddenly in a test of the unmanned aircraft's crash avoidance sensors. "Policy is crash avoidance software for our lives," said Ellman.
Ellman's comments demonstrated faith in the role of government to bring order to the drone world. Now the FAA just has to deliver on those expectations.