This weekend I was fortunate enough to attend the New York City Drone Film Festival in Tribeca and appear on a panel with some of my Fox colleagues about legal issues in the drone world. I also watched the panel on drone technology that was immediately prior to the law panel and was introduced to a truly impressive piece of technology, the Skydio R1 drone. The R1, unlike other consumer drones on the market, is fully autonomous, meaning it flies itself and can follow you while avoiding obstacles. This had me wondering, is the world ready for this? More specifically, is the FAA ready under the current state of regulations?
For starters, obstacle avoidance at this level is a huge benefit and something the FAA must be watching closely. After all, if commercial operation is ever truly going to get beyond visual line of sight, it is technology like the R1 that can help make it possible. However, as impressive as the technology is, the FAA is not going to simply trust a machine to fly itself. And while the regulatory framework of the FAA deals primarily with commercial operations (though a recent effort by certain airline industry groups asks the FAA to regulate hobbyists and recreational use), and the R1 appears designed more for recreational use (like an expensive flying selfie stick), there are still open questions about flying and complying.
Under Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”), recreational flying is exempt as long as it is done “in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization.” Currently, the only organization that can make such guidelines is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (the “AMA”). Under current AMA guidelines, autonomous flights are permitted, provided that the pilot can take over manual control of the aircraft at any time. The R1 does allow the user to take over manual control, but what does actual “control” consist of? How quickly must the user be able to take control in order for it to satisfy that guideline?
In one of the promotional videos for the R1, for example, it shows the drone following a person on a mountain bike. In order for that person to take control of the drone, they would have to stop their bike, get off, take out the controller and then pilot the drone. Is that enough control to comply with the AMA guideline? At the festival, I posed that question to Adam Bry, the CEO of Skydio and he acknowledged that it was an interesting question, but did not have an answer. That is because “control” in that context would need a more precise definition and maybe as more autonomous drones hit the market, that definition will come. For now though, I want one.