commercial-droneAs the US government continues to wrestle with the legality and desirability of commercial drones, our friends in Europe seem to be ahead of the game. The European Commission has today announced it will develop Europe-wide regulations around the use of civic and commercial drones (which they insist on calling “remotely piloted aircraft systems, or RPAS which is no fun at all).

Several European countries have already opened their airspace to such aircraft, and until now the issue has been regulated on a country-by-country basis.

The Commission’s statement details several areas of concern which forthcoming regulations will address: safety, privacy, security, liability and R&D. Luckily all the concerns rhyme.

Vice President and Commissioner for Mobility and Transport Siim Kallas is taking the lead on the initiative and has been tweeting about the project throughout the day to his 12,000 followers.

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration has effectively banned commercial drone operations, though it is disputed whether it is authorized to do so. Paranoid U.S. citizens can thank the FAA for delivering us, so far, from the waiting arms of this PKD nightmare. The more commerce-minded might blame the agency for withholding the airborne bounties of the DomiCoptor and Burrito Bomber from their slavering maws.

In order to get FAA clearance, an Unmanned Aerial System, or UAS (can’t we just call a drone a drone?) must meet three criteria: the aircraft must be certified to FAA specs, the pilot on the ground needs to be a licensed pilot, and the program must have FAA operational approval.

According to an FAA spokesman contacted this morning by Pando:

“A public entity that wants to fly a UAS has to give us information on what they want to fly, and when and where they want to fly it. The FAA then evaluates that application to determine if the produced operation can be conducted safely.”

To date, only one such operation has been cleared by the FAA – a Conoco Phillips mapping project only authorized to fly over-water in the Arctic.

The spokesman went on to explain that the agency was working on its own comprehensive rule to regulate small unmanned aircraft, to be presented for public comment later this year. After receiving public comment over a set period (generally 30 days) the agency is required to work that public comment into the regulations before issuing the rule.

Last year’s spate of hype surrounding the potential of commercial drones in the U.S. seems to have abated stateside. But despite the FAA’s firm stand, there are some opportunities and movement at the periphery.

Hobbyists, for example, do not require FAA approval, though they must abide by the agency’s model aircraft guidelines. Last month, the FAA lost its first case regarding the unauthorized operation of a small commercial drone. The case was brought against a non-licensed pilot who had used his hobby drone to capture images and video near the University of Virginia in 2011, and subsequently sold those images and videos.

The man, Raphael “Trappy” Pirker, was fined $10,000 by the FAA, but judges of the National Transportation Safety Board found that, by its own admission, the FAA didn’t have authority over model aircraft operation. Further, the judges ruled that since no FAA regulations explicitly mention UAS, its regulations don’t apply. So while there is a high hurdle to gaining FAA clearance for your drone operation, that clearance, under current law, isn’t necessary.

Shortly after that verdict, bootstrapped drone-delivery outfit QuiQui announced it would soon be delivering goods from drugstores to residents of San Francisco’s Mission District via unmanned aircraft and mobile app.

Your correspondent is still waiting for an invitation to the beta version of that project. Some of the specifics offered so far: it’s “completely legal”, the drones are battery-powered, available for delivery 24 hours-a-day, won’t be delivering medical cannabis and will tack on a $100 delivery charge to the price of goods. Tagline: “Heads up! We’re here!”

The FAA has announced it will appeal the NTSB ruling, in addition to developing new regulations.

“We see small, unmanned aircraft to be where most pent up demand is. It will be the first segment of the larger unmanned aircraft universe where this will be widely used–once regulations are in place.”

Today’s EU release states that Europe hopes to “ensure the progressive integration of RPAS into airspace as from 2016.” And while Kallas seems to be focusing on more civic-minded projects like mapping and emergency management, he did say, “In the future they may even deliver books from your favourite online retailer.”

Sweden, France and the UK already allow private drone operations, as do Japan, South Korea and Australia. There are commercial projects in the testing phase in Germany and the United Arab Emirates.

So while Amazon, Facebook and other American technology giants chomp at the bit to get their drone-based projects (ahem) off the ground, regulations in their homeland continue to present an unclear landscape for potential deployment. For now, the U.S. government will maintain a monopoly not only on violence and hacking, but drones as well.

Companies hoping to bring drone capabilities on line will continue to seek friendlier skies.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]