Drone Control

These unmanned aerial vehicles and their legal standing are up in the air

13 October 2014

You can’t avoid seeing stories in the news about drones. Amazon and Google have proposed using them for making deliveries. Facebook wants to use them to bring Internet access to developing countries. But you’ll also find thousands of articles about remotely piloted and autonomous drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library, which relates to almost every technology interest area that IEEE covers.

 No longer just aerial weapons, they are rapidly finding new civilian uses in agriculture, entertainment, environmental studies, law enforcement, real estate, traffic monitoring, wildlife conservation (including poacher tracking), and more. And that list will grow as UAVs become more common, spurring ingenious people to discover new uses for them.

“A combination of electronics advances and other factors are making it possible to manufacture very small, lightweight imaging and communications systems,” says IEEE Senior Member John Villasenor, professor of electrical engineering at UCLA. These technical advances have made UAVs more useful, cheaper, safer, easier to fly—and very popular. The Teal Group, an aerospace and defense researcher in Fairfax, Va., estimates that spending on drone R&D and procurement—US $6.6 billion in 2013—will reach $89 billion by 2023. But the UAV industry won’t really take off until government regulators determine how they can—and can’t—be used.


Agreeing upon the right regulations isn’t simple. Civilian drones add new dimensions to old problems—solving some, exacerbating others, and creating new ones (such as crashes and payloads dropping accidentally from the sky). The trick is to create regulations that encourage the good and minimize the bad.

Nothing that flies can ever be completely safe, so regulators must find a way to keep UAVs practical and useful while guarding against accidents caused by equipment failures, user carelessness, or hackers reprogramming UAVs for nefarious purposes. Privacy becomes a problem, too, now that camera-equipped UAVs can peek over walls or stare into windows of high-rise apartments.

In principle, existing civil and criminal laws cover these things. In practice, whether UAVs cause problems accidentally or through malicious intent, their operators may be far from the drones they’re flying, making them difficult to hold accountable, especially if the drone has been hacked.

Regulators must also deal with new technical issues arising from a sky full of aircraft too small to be readily seen, and with no pilots on board. Should airworthiness regulations be as stringent for lightweight UAVs as for manned aircraft? To what extent can UAVs share the same space as manned craft?

“I don’t want to look out my cockpit window and see an unmanned aircraft,” says Ron Ogan, an IEEE senior member who flies a single engine Cessna Skyhawk for the Civil Air Patrol and chairs IEEE’s Mississippi Section. Can collision-avoidance systems be light enough for UAVs weighing just a few kilograms? What’s the best way to trace UAVs back to their operators?

“The safety issue involves not only the UAVs themselves but also the manner in which they’re operated,” says Villasenor. For remotely piloted UAVs, that calls for pilot fitness standards, training, and licensing. But what standards and regulations will cover the hardware and software of self-guided drones?


In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is under congressional orders to set rules that will allow commercial and civilian drones to fly by the end of 2015. But for now, commercial uses are mostly banned, and noncommercial UAVs (other than those used by government agencies and state universities) must fly no higher than 122 meters, stay within sight of their human operators, and keep out of restricted airspace (near airports, over cities, or in national parks). These restrictions are already being challenged in court.

The agency, which is setting up six research and test facilities, says it expects to propose rules for small UAVs weighing less than 25 kilograms this year. Legislation has been proposed in more than 40 states, including limits on drone use in law enforcement, hunting, and fishing.

“The United States is currently at risk of putting rules in place that will prohibit educators and their students from flying drones for education and research,” says IEEE Senior Member Ella Atkins, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. “Will we regulate away our ability to educate students, to develop and test world-class commercial platforms, and to deploy these platforms usefully?”

“We’re in a period of transition where we have a dysfunctional law about who can do what and who can’t do anything,” Atkins adds. “Right now, people are ignoring the existing regulations because they don’t make sense. This results in flights without any oversight. That’s far more dangerous than if people have reasonable rules to follow.”

UAV laws in other countries differ. Regulations in the United Kingdom and Canada are similar to those in the United States, while Mexico and Brazil have little regulation. In Japan, UAVs have been used on farms for 20 years, but there are no common rules for the nonagricultural applications now arising. In Australia, permits are required for commercial uses but are easy to get (one reason Google has tested delivery drones there).

The European Communication Commission has mandated that key EU stakeholders develop a road map on how to integrate “remotely piloted aircraft systems” into the European aviation system by 2016. The commission has called for tough safety, security, privacy, data protection, insurance, and liability standards.

But new rules or laws by themselves will be insufficient. In any country, new or adapted laws and regulations won’t cut it unless there are means of enforcing them.

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