They fly, so pilots could love Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) [with other terms also used, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and drones.]
Some pilots are already involved with RPAs. However, RPA pilots remain on the ground. Is that the same? Differences have a way of dividing people, even when they may be “birds of a feather.” How do you feel?
The good news is that most pilots I’ve interviewed think RPAs are fine, although a few outspoken exceptions made their opposition known. Many airplane pilots are openly enthusiastic.
After the new proposed FAA rule, FAR Part 107, was released in mid-February and gained wide coverage, I contacted a subject matter expert who happens to be a longtime friend, Cliff Whitney. We’ve known each since we were younger pilots through a mutual interest in hang gliding and have remained friends ever since.
Today, Cliff runs a multimillion dollar enterprise that sells … well, things that fly (but with the pilot not inside). He remains an active pilot who enjoys flying several airplane types, so he gets it from a pilot’s perspective. We spoke for an hour just a couple days after the FAA hurriedly released its news about the new proposed rule.
In an unusual Sunday morning press conference, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta released the details of the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM).
Along with these two big shots of the regulatory world, Cliff was on the conference line. As both a pilot and an RPA seller, he said, “I was shocked yet extremely pleased about the proposed rule. The FAA used common sense. Part 107 will encourage innovation while promoting adoption” of the regulation.
Some, like Amazon — a company with ambitions about using RPAs to deliver packages to your doorstep — were less enamored of the rule as it excludes flight that the big online outfit will need to offer its aerial delivery service (see some of the Part 107 points below). However, even Amazon officials had to agree with Cliff that “107 allows the ability to go elsewhere.”
“Recreational users are exempt [from 107] … this is hard coded and cannot be changed,” Cliff observed. “If hobbyists fly recklessly, they can be penalized, but this is as it was before.”
The regulation only applies to what Cliff calls the “industrial side.” That’s the main aspect of his business, accounting for 70% of his company’s sales. “Part 107 will increase the industrial share because the new regulation is so accommodating,” he added.
Defining the RPA Market
Let’s look at some impact from this proposed regulation. I asked Cliff about the size of the market. To understand it better, we need to divide it into its component parts.
Recreational user RPAs run $600-$2,000. These are some very capable RPAs compared to “toys” that you can buy for $50-$500.
True working systems with back-up aircraft — needed because a company hiring you won’t want to hear about a broken part that will take a week to fix — cost $5,000 to $10,000. However, the latter amount is enough to buy an RPA delivering butter-smooth, motion picture-quality video with very high resolution that can be transmitted to a computer or other device on the ground.
In the recreational or industrial sector, Cliff believes DJI is the leader with an estimated 70% of the market. DJI did $130 million worth of business in 2013, $260 million last year, and projects $600 million for 2015.
Calculating from average wholesale selling prices, the overall RPA industry could deliver as many as a million new RPAs this year alone. In contrast, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) said that 986 single engine piston aircraft were sold worldwide in 2014. Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) and LSA types delivered approximately 3,000 aircraft around the globe.
RPAs clearly represent very big business.
Should Pilots Be Worried?
As a pilot — especially those who fly in an open cockpit aircraft — should you be worried about all this new traffic in the sky?
“Such worry shows a lack of understanding,” said Cliff.
He explained using a humorous tale about how Radio Control (RC) airplane hobbyists have events where they deliberately try to run into one another, all within a 200-foot-square space.
“I’ve seen 50 RCs fly around at low altitudes for 20 minutes without running into each other, even in a confined space — and that’s when they’re trying to hit one other,” he said.
He makes a good point. In my flying, while I recognize we must be ever vigilant to see and avoid, the skies are spacious and I very rarely see any aircraft close except near the airport.
As with most FAA proposals, the agency is asking for comments and must consider every one. For example, the FAA is asking if the regs should permit operations beyond line of sight and, if yes, what are appropriate limits?
Farm groups have already expressed dismay with the proposed regulation. RPAs can be very helpful to manage agriculture and companies are already engaged to supply flying gear. However, the requirement for line-of-sight operation forces them to physically move around larger farms when the aircraft are capable of more now and will only get better. Regulation often falls behind development and this situation is greatly exaggerated when fast-moving technology is involved.
Likewise, companies like Amazon may be dissatisfied with the proposed rule as its proposed package-delivery RPAs couldn’t fly over populated areas as the NPRM is written.
However, as Whitney explained, the regulations can change to allow such use after initial experience is gained and exemptions can be obtained to help everyone study the situation. Of course, giant companies like Amazon and Google have lobbyists who might try to influence rule writers.
Even after the final regulation is released, expect changes. This isn’t over and the technology is changing with the same rapidity seen as the Internet and mobile apps developed.
Right or wrong, it seems as certain as tomorrow’s sunrise that RPAs are going to proliferate.
RPA NPRM Summary
- RPVs must weigh less than 55 pounds;
- Commercial operators must remain within visual line of sight;
- RPAs can only operate in the daylight with a least three statute miles visibility;
- RPAs must stay below 500 feet AGL and outside of Class A airspace;
- May fly in Class B, C, and D airspace with prior permission from ATC;
- RPA must stay 500 feet below clouds and 2,000 feet horizontally;
- RPAs cannot exceed 100 mph and must “see-and-avoid” other aircraft;
- RPAs are not allowed over people, except those involved in the flight;
- RPA operators would have to pass an aeronautical exam and retake the test every two years (You can prepare for the exam via a study guide offered by UAV Ground School);
- Background checks of some sort would be required for commercial RPA operators; and
- Aircraft markings (N-numbers) are mandated for identification purposes.