It’s a drone… It’s a weather balloon… No, it’s a Google Loon balloon! Google Loon is by any account a project of enormous proportions. It was born of the ideal of providing Internet access to the most remote corners of the planet, and announced via video with the additional promise of chipping away at the world’s most pressing problems: “Well even though today one in three kids can’t get to a secondary school, everyone could have secondary school come to them. In places where there aren’t enough doctors, everyone could be helped by doctors in other places.”
How? Google is planning an army of computer-carrying hydrogen-lifted balloons navigating the stratosphere between 60,000 and 120,000 feet above the Earth’s surface. Critical for this post, unlike weather balloons, the Loons are steerable—controlled by remote pilots in Google offices who can adjust air vents on the balloons and thus propel them along air currents. Each Loon is envisioned to provide high-speed Internet coverage to a ground area forty kilometers in diameter.
Does the navigational capability of the Loons make them Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), otherwise known as drones? Classifying the Loons as drones would make the commercial operation of the Loons illegal—unless approved by the FAA—according to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 §332(d)(1) and (3).
In the following analysis, I propose that Google’s Loons qualify as drones, posing a challenge to the Federal Aviation Agency to move quickly in setting regulations for the commercial use of drones. The regulatory body needs to set widely accessible standards not only to address Google Loons, but also to allow for innovation by other companies seeking commercial applications of drone technologies. Setting such standards will enable the FAA to fulfill its delayed mandate to “develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system” within 270 days from the enactment of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
How do the Google Loons qualify as drones? The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 defines a UAS as “an unmanned aircraft and associated elements (including communication links and the components that control the unmanned aircraft).” But what is an ‘unmanned aircraft’? “The term ‘unmanned aircraft’ means an aircraft that is operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft.” What then is an ‘aircraft’? FAA regulations at 49 CFR 1510.3 then define an aircraft as a device that is used or intended for use for flight in the air.
From the above, it is unquestionable that the Loons fall under the Act’s UAS categorization. Weather balloons and other non-remotely steered balloons are otherwise regulated by Title 14 §101.33 of the US Federal Code as unmanned free balloons. They are defined as “lighter-than-air” and use helium and similar low-density gasses to lift rather than engines.
With Google’s Loons fitting the definition Unmanned Aircraft Systems, FAA officials have yet to definitely declare the Google balloons as drones. This means that Google and others can operate the Loons freely without regulation as officials move slowly in labeling the devices UAS. Even as the possibility remains that Google has obtained permission from the Secretary of Transportation to operate the Loons in the US, others seeking to follow Google’s path might not invite regulation as they seek rapid innovation. They will thus need a clear FAA declaration on whether Loons are drones restricted from commercial operation.
The restriction on commercial operation of drones, however, is a clear challenge to online retailer Amazon. Announced only six months after the Google Loon project, Amazon Prime Air promises the use of drones to deliver goods in thirty minutes or less to ordering customers in urban neighborhoods. Domino’s Pizza also announced the DomiCopter months prior to Amazon, promising swift pizza delivery to customers. A TacoCopter has also been conceived. The eagerness of entrepreneurs to utilize drones for commercial purposes is thus high; and current blanket restriction on flying commercial drones does little to spur such innovation.
According to the FAA, one needs to gain FAA approval for flying a drone by either obtaining a Special Airworthiness Certificate – Experimental Category (SAC-EC) for civil aircraft, or obtaining a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for public aircraft. Although such regulation allows for the operation of commercial drones, it does little to set widely available standards for operation of the devices. The FAA has thus moved slowly since its mandate to set such standards in its Modernization and Reform Act.
The ideal of providing Internet access to millions who lack access is a noble and potentially lucrative one. Equally, faster delivery systems such as those proposed by Amazon and Domino’s have the capacity to generate significant economic activity. In order for the promises of these innovations to be realized, clear regulatory guidelines by the FAA will be needed. The regulatory body will foster innovation by both regularly updating the public on new devices that are considered Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and setting clear parameters to allow for wider commercial utilization of drones.