Servo Magazine ( March 2016 )

FAA Licensing: A Sign that Drones Have Arrived

By Bryan Bergeron    View In Digital Edition  

If you’re one of the million or so recipients of a drone this past holiday season, you’ve no doubt complied with the mandatory FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) registration. (Haven’t you?) Because the registration applies to drones between 0.55 and 55 lbs, the typical 1-2 lb hobby drones must be registered. It’s unclear how the FAA will enforce this requirement, but for the $5 tax, it’s probably worth signing up.

While it’s debatable whether the FAA’s licensing requirements will actually benefit the public or drone owners, the move clearly validates the hobby and the class of flying vehicles. Drones have officially come into their own.

One effect of licensing might be to push R&D in the micro-drone market. I have several “micro” drones that I use inside simply because of space limitations. I can see the pressure to create micro-drones for outside use that perform, as well as current drones in the 0.55 lb class and above. That could translate to new frame materials and designs, as well as a micro version of the popular GoPro camera.

The anti-licensing crowd can also exploit the gray areas of the requirements, again pushing the limits of the technology. Consider, for example, a swarm of six 0.50 lb drones, flown in a rotating pattern, with the leading drones taking the brunt of the wind for a few seconds, with the other drones drafting.

Clearly, there’s 3 lbs of battery and motor sailing through the air at high speed, but the drones are physically separate. I’d also explore the boundaries of the definition by distributing the weight of a payload across several drones. For example, does a swarm of 10 0.50 lb drones each sharing a 2 lb payload require licensing? I’d at least expect to see someone try it.

There’s evidence that licensing — properly implemented — might help galvanize the drone operator community. For example, you could argue that the FCC’s licensing of the amateur radio bands provides little direct benefit to hams or the public.

However, ask any ham operator about their license. You’ll find that they take pride not only in their license, but in the level of licensure from Novice to Extra Class. It’s a badge of sorts. The FCC rarely has to call out a particular ham radio operator because of the extraordinary level of polite self-policing.

I appreciate the tension between those who favor licensing and those in the “open access to the skies” camp. However, it isn’t likely that the FAA is going to back down, so it makes sense to either innovate around the requirement or pay the fee/tax and move on.

The renegade in me wants to beat the current $5 tax, regardless of cost. My pragmatic side says just pay the tax and move on.

If you have strong feelings one way or the other, please share your opinion and logic with me and your fellow readers.  SV

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