The Birth of Drones
The term drone originated in 1935, after the British produced a fleet of radio controlled, unmanned aircraft (the DH.82B Queen Bee), to be used for anti-aircraft gun target practice. Because male honey bees are called drones, at some point the autonomous Queen Bee aircraft took on the same name. Since that early appearance “drone” has become the ubiquitous term for any unmanned remotely controlled aircraft. The US military has been experimenting with drones since the 1930s. In the 1960s the US Marine Corps even experimented with a 60-pound drone called the Bikini. Military drone technology blossomed in the late 90s with the creation of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, the flying military machines that have become the face of drones to the general public.
The Drone Explosion
But, we all know the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) isn’t churning out new regulations in response to military drones. So why all the recent attention from the feds? The FAA rule making comes in response to the explosion of drone use by private individuals and companies for both recreational and commercial purposes. So why did the common, middle class American suddenly decide to start flying drones? The answer—technology.
Two Types of Drones: Fixed Wing and Rotary Wing
The drone explosion makes more sense when we consider the two major categories of drones—fixed wing and rotary wing. Fixed wing drones, like the Queen Bee from the 1930s, firmly held the spot as only child in the drone family for decades. A fixed wing drone is simply an airplane that can be controlled remotely. Yes, this means that the common model plan is really just a type of drone. Due to their relatively simple designs, fixed wing drones can generally travel faster and over longer distances. The down side, of course, is that fixed wing drones require a larger space for take-off and landing and must maintain constant linear motion to stay in flight.
Rotary wing drones are the late, unexpected second child in the drone family, a birth made possible by the technology advancements of the 21st century. Quadcopters, which are by far the most common rotary wing drone, exist only by virtue of their on-board computers that communicate with gyroscopes and accelerometers to constantly change the speeds of the individual props. The technology that makes quadcopter flight possible is very similar to the technology in many smartphones. In contrast to fixed wing drones, rotary wing drones (e.g. quadcopters) are far more versatile and, let’s face it, much more fun to fly. The rotary wing drones can take off and land in small areas and their ability to hover-in-place opens the door to endless potential uses—some noble and some less noble.
Enter the Federal Government
Drone sales have continued to boom through the first half of 2016 and many investors expect the consumer and commercial drone industries to grow rapidly over the next decade. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that recreational drone purchases may grow from 1.9 million in 2016 to as many as 4.3 million in 2020. Commercial drone sales are expected to grow from 600,000 in 2016 to 2.7 million in 2020. Drones are becoming a common addition to a day at the beach or a morning on the ski slopes. With some hobby drones capable of flying to very high altitudes, it was only a matter of time before the federal government stepped in.
FAA Rules, Policies, and Guidance
From the outside, understanding all the dos and don’ts of federal drone law can be like trying to detect a pattern in the pellet holes from a shotgun blast. Before coming down too hard on the FAA we have to recall just how fast the drone explosion has occurred. Creating regulations for a rapidly developing sector of aviation is a daunting task. Or goal at US Drone Law is to help both recreational and commercial drone operators navigate the laws, policies, and published federal guidance related to unmanned aerial systems. Our Federal Drone Laws page provides a summary of laws and guidance published by the FAA in a condensed, reverse-chronological format. You can get further into the weeds from there by drilling all the way down to the document level for each mandate or policy.