In a long anticipated move, on February 15, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued proposed rules that are intended to permit the commercial operation of small unmanned aircraft, commonly referred to as “drones.”
Safety is Key
The proposed rules attempt to balance the risk to public safety while providing a regulatory framework that is reasonably (but not overly) burdensome to the industry to avoid stifling advances in technology and economic competitiveness. The FAA addresses safety in a number of ways, but most obviously by limiting the weight of the drone, limiting the manner of its operation, and by placing restrictions on the people flying the drone. By providing a regulatory path for at least some commercial operations, the proposed rules help those in the industry avoid uncertainty and substantial costs associated with requesting an FAA exemption or special airworthiness certificate.
Only Small Drones Would Have the Green Light
Under the proposed rules, commercial operators of a small drone (weighing less than 55 pounds) must not fly higher than 500 feet above ground level, faster than 100 mph, over people who are not directly involved in the operation, at night, or when weather visibility is less than 3 miles. A small drone must undergo a preflight inspection before use, though FAA airworthiness certification would not be required. With some modifications due to its size, small drones nevertheless would be subject to the same aircraft marking and registration requirements that are applicable to manned aircraft. And although the drone must remain within the visual line-of-sight of the operator at all times, to meet the needs of commercial operators where limited risk to people or property would be incurred, this requirement may be met by also deploying a visual observer, perhaps in radio contact with the operator, to assist the operator to maintain visual contact with the small drone in place of the operator.
Operators (“Pilots”) of Drones Must Meet Minimum Requirements
To establish at least a reasonable degree of uniformity across all potential commercial uses permitted under the rules and to minimize national security risks within the borders of the U.S., commercial operators of small drones must:
Be at least 17 years old;
Pass an initial and recurrent aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge test center;
Be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA);
Obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) type rating,
Make available to the FAA the small unmanned aircraft for inspection/testing; and
Report an accident within 10 days of any operation that results in injury or property damage.
To be sure, winners and losers will exist on both sides of the proposed rules. While crop monitoring, research uses, educational/academic uses, powerline/antenna/bridge inspections, aerial photography, wildlife tracking, and rescue operations may be more easily accommodated under the proposed rules, other commercial uses will remain in the cold, such as anything requiring use of a drone heavier than 55 pounds at takeoff, flights higher than 500 feet, faster than 100 mph, or at distances or under conditions where the operator or visual observer cannot maintain visual line-of-sight with the drone. Until the FAA obtains data sufficient to warrant expansion of these rules, those who wish to operate a drone outside the proposed rules have the option of pursuing either an FAA exemption or a special airworthiness certificate.