On Tuesday, June 10, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it had authorized the first commercial drone operation over land in the United States.  The approval permits energy company BP to operate drones to survey pipelines, roads, and equipment at the oilfield at Prudhoe Bay, along the north Arctic Ocean coast of Alaska.  The FAA had previously authorized operations over Arctic waters in that area, and the approval this week was heralded by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx as “another important step toward broader commercial use of unmanned aircraft.”

The novelty of the FAA’s action underscores the considerable challenges facing the agency and its drone policy.  The FAA is under strong pressure from Congress to integrate drones into the national airspace system by September 2015, but it has been criticized for moving too slowly.  Earlier this year, the agency suffered a stinging dismissal of an enforcement action against a drone operator.  The FAA had sought to enforce its policy, as expressed in a series of warning letters, that “the FAA currently does not allow any [unmanned aircraft system] operation to be conducted for commercial purposes,” but a reviewing judge concluded that the lack of FAA regulations on drones precluded the prosecution.  (The FAA has appealed.)  The FAA also announced plans to issue proposed regulations “in calendar year 2014,” but it has yet to do so.

In this regulatory vacuum, companies wishing to conduct commercial drone operations have been forced to pursue individualized authorizations, such as BP’s operation in the Arctic or the recent petition by several production companies seeking to use drones in the film and television industry.

In several respects, the individual authorizations are easier for the FAA to address because they do not force the agency to consider the broad reach of its extensive regulations related to commercial aviation.  For example, existing rules make significant regulatory distinctions based on factors that were designed entirely for an environment of manned aircraft flying at altitude.  (As a particularly absurd example, consider the requirement for reinforced cockpit doors; without modification, that rule would suggest that drone pilots are required to be in locked rooms.)  Commercial aviation regulations make distinctions on the number and type of engines, the medical examinations required of pilots, and even the regularity of the aircraft’s flight schedule.  Airspace regulations presume the ability to communicate with air traffic control, which is impossible from the ground except around larger airports.

In short, integrating drones into the national airspace system requires a complete reconceptualization of the FAA’s approach to aviation regulations.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the agency has moved slowly and started with actions that are individualized, limited, and constrained – even isolated, in the case of the Alaskan Arctic.  The real actions are yet to come as the FAA tackles the significantly harder issues involved in integrating drones into the entire airspace system.