Nearly two years past its original congressionally mandate deadline, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued first operational rules for routine commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), an initial step to integrating UAS into U.S. airspace.

The new rule, which takes effect in late August, offers safety regulations for unmanned aircraft drones weighing less than 55 pounds that are conducting non-hobbyist operations. Drones, which the FAA rule recognizes as a moniker for UAS, must be flown under 400 feet instead of the 500 feet put forth in the draft rule. It also reduces the minimum age of a drone operator to 16 from the proposed 17.

Other differences from the draft rule include the requirement that the UAS operator is able to read, speak, write and understand English. UAS pilots also must obtain a remote pilot certificate with a small-UAS rating or be directly supervised by someone who is certified. Certificates are available after an online educational course provided by the FAA and a completed flight review.

The popular quadcopter UAV developed by China's DJI. Photo: DJI
The popular quadcopter UAV developed by China’s DJI. Photo: DJI

Congress initially tasked the FAA to draw up unmanned aircraft rules in 2012 through that year’s FAA reauthorization bill. The original deadline to put forth a small UAS rule was August 2014. Since May of that year, 5,300 granted exemptions have allowed the commercial, for-profit operation of drones within the U.S. airspace.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) said in a joint statement that the FAA’s rule was better released late than never.

“Although we are continuing to review in detail, we are pleased that the FAA appears to have taken an approach to the commercial use of small drones that closely mirrors the risk-based permitting provision approach we proposed in the House FAA reauthorization bill,” the congressmen said. “The FAA’s long-overdue final rule focuses on safely integrating unmanned drones into the national airspace while providing flexibility to permit more advanced types of operations as technology improves. Completing this rule is an important step toward full integration and fostering innovation in the growing UAS industry.”

Under the final version of the rule, operators are responsible for ensuring a drone is safe before flying, but all that is required is a preflight visual and operational check of the small UAS to ensure that safety systems are functioning properly. The FAA is not requiring small UAS to comply with current agency airworthiness standards or aircraft certification.

“We are part of a new era in aviation, and the potential for unmanned aircraft will make it safer and easier to do certain jobs, gather information, and deploy disaster relief,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We look forward to working with the aviation community to support innovation, while maintaining our standards as the safest and most complex airspace in the world.”

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) has long advocated for the release of common-sense regulations governing operation of small UAS in the National Airspace, primarily because of the economic windfall it foresees when certain industries and commercial sectors are freed to fly them. AUVSI chief executive Brian Wynne praised the new rule in a statement Tuesday.

According to industry estimates, the UAS industry harbors the potential to generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.

“Today’s release of the final small UAS rule by the FAA is a critical milestone in the integration process, and a long-awaited victory for American businesses and innovators,” Wynne said. “It establishes a clear regulatory framework and helps to reduce many barriers to civil and commercial operations, allowing anyone who follows the rules to fly in the national airspace. Accelerating civil and commercial UAS operations will not only help businesses harness tremendous potential of UAS, it will also help unlock the economic impact and job creation potential of the technology.”

To minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground, pilots must fly unmanned aircraft within visual line of sight. Visual aids like glasses and contacts are OK, but binoculars and spotting scopes are out. Operations are allowed during daylight and within a half-hour of sunrise and sunset if the drone has anti-collision lights. Flights over unprotected people on the ground who aren’t directly participating in the UAS operation are prohibited.

Operators can only fly one aircraft at a time, or be a visual spotter for one UAS at a time, and UAS must yield the right of way to other aircraft, whether manned or unmanned.

Small UAS can’t fly faster than 100 mph, can’t operate from a moving vehicle unless it is operating “over a sparsely populated area” and can only operate when there is a minimum of three miles’ visibility from the control station.

While the rule opens many uses of small UAS, it still restricts several forms of commercial flight that would benefit larger commercial interests like the natural gas mining companies, according to Jamie Nafziger a partner and UAS legal expert at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney.

“The rules still require FAA pre-approval for more extensive commercial uses.  For instance, if someone wants to fly a drone over their farm for use in precision agriculture, these new rules make doing that much easier,” Nafziger said in a statement. “If someone wants to fly over crowds of people or carry significant payloads, they will still need a waiver from the FAA as they have since September 2014. Use of drones to inspect pipelines, aerial power lines, or mines, will also require a waiver unless it can be done in line of sight from the ground or from a moving land vehicle in a sparsely populated area.”

Because the rule does not allow beyond-line-of-sight function, which AUVSI points out is “critical to the desires of companies like Amazon, Google, DHL and others to provide package delivery via UAS.” The feasibility and safety of such operations will continue to be studied by the FAA’s Pathfinder programs. Still, the FAA is considering specific business cases and operations for waivers, for which it has established a streamlined application process through an online portal.  

“All these provisions are waiverable,” said John Duncan, of the FAA’s Flight Standards Organization. “We are putting in place a streamlined waiver process.”

One thing the FAA small UAS rule does not address are concerns over privacy issues related to the ability of drones to carry sophisticated cameras and sensor payloads. The administration does not regulate UAS capabilities to gather data, but “strongly encourages all UAS pilots to check local and state laws before gathering information through remote sensing technology or photography.”

“With this new rule, we are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA’s mission to protect public safety,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “But this is just our first step. We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.”