New FAA Regulation is Good News for Commercial Drone Operators

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently announced some long awaited regulation for the operation of small-unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones.

The new rules will govern applications such as disaster relief, aerial photography, and utilities inspection. In early 2015, the FAA set guidelines for recreational drone users, but commercial operators were required to apply for special exemption and acquire a pilot’s license. The new rules, which go into effect after a 60-day comment period, would remove the commercial exemption process that has over 7,000 pending applications.

Under the new rule, all operators are required to be over the age of 16 and pass an aeronautics test every two years to receive certification alongside a background check from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). During flight, the UAS must be flown during daylight or be equipped with anti-collision lights in darker twilight hours. The regulation also defines strict height and speed limits. Drones have a maximum altitude of 400 feet unless the drone is within 400 feet of a tall building or tower and cannot exceed 100 mph. The new rules prohibit flights over people on the ground (who are not involved with the drones’ operation) as well.

The demand for commercial drones is rising exponentially. Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), stated, “Our economic report projects that the expansion of UAS technology will create more than 100,000 jobs and generate more than $82 billion to the economy in the first decade following integration.” Drones open up new possibilities in industries ranging from television and film to wildlife management. Farmers want to utilize drones to monitor crop fields, quad copters could aid in search and rescue as well as disaster relief, and aerial photography could assist in construction surveys and real estate sales.

The regulation hopes to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground, but disregards some very important issues to drone operators and the boarder public. One new provision requires drones to remain within line-of-sight (LOS) of either the pilot or someone in direct communication with the operator. The new LOS guidelines currently preclude the experimental package delivery services announced by Amazon, Google, and Wal-Mart. Furthermore, these regulations only apply to small drones weighing less than 55 lbs., prohibiting the services larger drones could provide.

Privacy concerns are also absent from the FAA’s new regulations; currently, the administration doesn’t regulate how drones gather data on people or property. They do, however, educate all commercial drone pilots on privacy during their pilot certification process and encourage all operators to be familiar with local and state laws before operation. The FAA is compiling a privacy “best practices” document, but specific local and state laws relating to drone operation and privacy still apply. This could change soon though as the FAA continues to push for legislation that would prohibit states from passing drone regulation. Finally, the increasing prevalence of drones creates worries that the FAA will be unable to monitor the usage of the vast amount of new drones entering operation.

Clearly, the FAA is trying to work with the aviation community to support innovation, but the balance between new technology and public safety means regulation comes slowly. As the rising tide of drone adoption escalates, the administration continues to research how to avoid collision between both drones and other aircraft as well as how to handle a loss of connection between remote drivers and their vehicles. The FAA also offers a process to waive some restrictions if an operator can prove the proposed flight will be safe. A new online portal for waivers should go live before the end of the year. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said, “This is just our first step. We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.”

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