WASHINGTON — The Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration finalized the first operational rules (link opens .pdf of rule summary) for routine commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or “drones”) June 21. The rules do not affect drone operated for hobby or recreational purposes.
“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.”
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.
The regulations require pilots to keep an unmanned aircraft within visual line of sight. Operations are allowed during daylight and during twilight if the drone has anti-collision lights.
Under the final rule, the person actually flying a drone must be at least 16 and have a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating, or be directly supervised by someone with such a certificate. The TSA will conduct a security background check of all remote pilot applications prior to issuance of a certificate.
The new regulations also address height and speed restrictions and other operational limits, such as prohibiting flights over unprotected people on the ground who aren’t directly participating in the UAS operation. The FAA is offering a process to waive some restrictions if an operator proves the proposed flight will be conducted safely under a waiver.
Operators are responsible for ensuring a drone is safe before flying, but the FAA is not requiring small UAS to comply with current agency airworthiness standards or aircraft certification. Instead, the remote pilot will simply have to perform a preflight visual and operational check of the small UAS to ensure that safety-pertinent systems are functioning property. This includes checking the communications link between the control station and the UAS.
Although the new rule does not specifically deal with privacy issues in the use of drones, and the FAA does not regulate how UAS gather data on people or property, the FAA is acting to address privacy considerations in this area.
The FAA strongly encourages all UAS pilots to check local and state laws before gathering information through remote sensing technology or photography.
The rules ease the burden on businesses that want to use drones, but Jamie Nafziger, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, said 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. “On the other hand, 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, Nafziger said.
“I’ve had clients ask me if they can hire their nieces or nephews to fly drones for their business and have had to tell them ‘no,’ unless their niece or nephew is a pilot,” she added. “Now, under the new rules, I can say “yes,” so long as their niece or nephew is at least 16 and gets a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating.”
“We should have lots more eligible operators over the next few months,” Nafziger said.
Highlights of the new rule
- The small UAS operator must keep your drone within sight. If you use First Person View or similar technology, you must have a visual observer always keep your aircraft within unaided sight (no binoculars). However, even if you use a visual observer, you must still keep your unmanned aircraft close enough to be able to see it if something unexpected happens.
- Neither you nor a visual observer can be responsible for more than one unmanned aircraft operation at a time.
- You can fly during daylight or in twilight (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset, local time) with appropriate anti-collision lighting. Minimum weather visibility is three miles from your control station.
- The maximum allowable altitude is 400 feet above the ground, and higher if your drone remains within 400 feet of a structure. The maximum speed is 100 mph (87 knots).
- You can’t fly a small UAS over anyone who is not directly participating in the operation, not under a covered structure, or not inside a covered stationary vehicle. No operations from a moving vehicle are allowed unless you are flying over a sparsely populated area.
- You can carry an external load if it is securely attached and does not adversely affect the flight characteristics or controllability of the aircraft. You also may transport property for compensation or hire within state boundaries provided the drone — including its attached systems, payload and cargo — weighs less than 55 pounds total and you obey the other flight rules.
To operate the controls of a small commercial UAS, you need a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating, or be under the direct supervision of a person who holds such a certificate You must be at least 16 to qualify for a remote pilot certificate.
The FAA does not require small UAS to comply with current agency airworthiness standards or obtain aircraft certification. Instead, the remote pilot will simply have to perform a preflight visual and operational check of the small UAS to ensure that systems are functioning properly. This includes checking the communications link between the control station and the UAS. The UAS must also be registered.
Although the new rule does not specifically deal with privacy issues in the use of drones, and the FAA does not regulate how UAS gather data on people or property, the FAA is acting to address privacy considerations. The FAA also will educate all commercial drone pilots on privacy during their pilot certification process; and will issue new guidance to local and state governments on drone privacy issues.
If you are acting as pilot in command, you have to comply with several other provisions of the rule:
- You must make your drone available to the FAA for inspection or testing on request, and you must provide any associated records required to be kept under the rule.
- You must report to the FAA within 10 days any operation that results in serious injury, loss of consciousness, or property damage (to property other than the UAS) of at least $500.