Drone Countdown

Now that Congress’ demand to put drones in the air over America is law, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must write the rules governing the operation of civilian and government drones.

The new drone law contains a tangle of dates and deadlines for those rules. The “countdown” in the law is confusing to sort out, but the deadlines are key to understanding how drones will be phased into our airspace and our lives.

(CDT has outlined a legislative proposal to protect privacy as drones are deployed over the U.S.)

The FAA has issued more than 300 temporary licenses – mostly to law enforcement agencies and research institutions. The new law – officially titled the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 or P.L. 112-95 - requires the Dept. of Transportation (DOT) and the FAA to 1) expedite the current licensing process for government and non-government drones and make the process permanent, 2) establish rules for the certification and operation of drones, and 3) oversee the full integration of government and non-government drones in U.S. airspace.

Below is a basic timeline representing some – but not all – of the events required by law relating to the use of domestic drones. I organize the dates into two groups: rules for government drones and rules for non-government drones. Many of the dates below should be considered approximate because they are deadlines established by law and not necessarily when the FAA and DOT will make a move. Citations (such as to Sec. 334, etc.) are to sections of the law.

Knowing the deadlines should also be useful to members of the public looking for opportunities to comment on the FAA’s proposed rules and plans for the domestic use of drones. (Hopefully someone will turn the timeline into a neat infographic.)

Rules for Government Drones

May 14, 2012: Expedite the licensure of government drones
The Secretary of Transportation (the Secretary) must enter into agreements with government agencies to simplify and expedite the licensure of government-owned drones. Sec. 344(c). The agreements must allow law enforcement and other public safety agencies to operate drones under certain restrictions (i.e., within the line of sight of the operator, under 400ft., during daylight conditions). Sec. 334(c)(2)(C).

Aug. 12, 2012: Early integration of “safe” drones
The Secretary must determine if certain types of drones (government and non-government) can operate in the national airspace before completion of the comprehensive plan, rulemakings, or guidance required elsewhere in P.L.112-95. The Secretary must base this determination on whether the drone can perform without hazard to the public or national security. The Secretary must develop rules to integrate these drones into the national airspace, though P.L.112-95 gives no deadline for these rules. Sec. 333(a)-(b).

Nov. 10, 2012: Guidance for government drones
The Secretary must issue guidance regarding the operation of government drones. The guidance must include ways to expedite the issuance of FAA authorizations to use drones. Sec. 334(a).

Dec. 31, 2015: Final standards for government drones
FAA must develop and implement operational and certification requirements for the use of government drones in the national airspace. Sec. 334(b).

Rules for Non-Government Drones

Aug. 12, 2012: Early integration of “safe” drones
The Secretary must determine if certain types of drones (government and non-government) can operate in the national airspace before completion of the comprehensive plan, rulemakings, or guidance required elsewhere in P.L.112-95. The Secretary must base this determination on whether the drone can perform without hazard to the public or national security. The Secretary must develop rules to integrate these drones into the national airspace, though P.L.112-95 gives no deadline for these rules. Sec. 333(a)-(b).

Nov. 10, 2012: Development of a comprehensive plan
The Secretary must develop a “comprehensive plan” to integrate non-government drones into the national airspace system by Sep. 30, 2015. The plan is required to contain several elements, including recommendations on acceptable standards for operation, certification, and licensing of non-government drones. The recommendations in this plan will influence subsequent rulemakings. Sec. 332(a)(1)-(4).

Feb. 14, 2013: Deadline for the comprehensive plan
The Secretary must submit the final version of the comprehensive plan to Congress. Sec. 332(a)(4). The Secretary must also approve and publish a 5-year roadmap – to be updated annually – for phasing non-government drones into the national airspace. Sec. 332(a)(5).

Aug. 14, 2014: Final rule for non-government drones
The Secretary must publish a final rule that will allow small non-government drones to operate in the national airspace system. Sec. 332(b)(1).

Aug. 14, 2014: Proposed rule to implement the comprehensive plan
The Secretary must issue a notice of proposed rulemaking to implement the recommendations of the comprehensive plan. Sec. 332(b)(2).

Sep. 30, 2015: Integration of non-government drones
This is the target deadline for the completed implementation of the comprehensive plan to integrate non-government drones into the national airspace. Sec. 332(a)(3).

Dec. 14, 2015: Final rule to implement the comprehensive plan
The Secretary must issue the final rule to implement the comprehensive plan. Sec. 332(b)(2).

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