FAA Unveils Long-awaited Small Drone Draft Regulation

 - February 15, 2015, 2:12 PM
Operators would be able to fly the Yuneec Q500 Typhoon quadcopter and other small unmanned aircraft for business purposes under the FAA's proposed rule. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

The FAA unveiled its highly anticipated proposed regulation for the commercial use of small drones weighing less than 55 pounds on February 15, nearly four years later than expected. The agency’s release of the rule on a Sunday coincided with the release of a Presidential memorandum setting privacy guidelines for federal agencies that use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Under the FAA’s proposed rule, which it called a “framework of regulations,” operators would be required to fly drones within their unaided line of sight, to a maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level and during daylight hours. Flights in airspace sectors other than Class G uncontrolled airspace would require local ATC permission to maintain a buffer between manned and unmanned aircraft. The rule contains a “micro UAS option” that would permit more flexible operation in Class G airspace for drones weighing 4.4 pounds or less.

Significantly, the regulation would not require small drone operators to have a private pilot certificate. Rather, they would need a “newly created FAA unmanned aircraft operator’s permit” which they would earn “by passing a knowledge test focusing on the rules of the air,” Administrator Michael Huerta told reporters and other interested parties in a conference call. Approved operators, who must be at least 17 years old, would renew the operator’s certificate every two years, and there would be no separate requirement for a medical certificate, Huerta said. Also, the FAA would not require that small drones be certified for airworthiness—a potential show stopper for some air vehicles—only that they be maintained in a safe condition for flight.

The FAA’s conditions, more lenient than drone industry participants expected, must survive a rulemaking process that could take 18 months or longer. The agency will accept public comments for 60 days from the date the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) appears in the Federal Register. “Today’s action does not authorize widespread commercial use of unmanned aircraft,” Huerta advised. “That can happen only when the rule is final."

Positive Industry Feedback

Several industry groups reacted immediately to the FAA announcement. Their comments were generally positive, although groups said they must study the NPRM further. “This proposed rule is a critical milestone in the UAS integration process, and one that is long overdue,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “UAS technology has largely remained grounded while many prospective users wait for the regulatory framework to catch up.” The powerful Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which counts among its members the established U.S. manufacturers of large civil and military aircraft, said it will conduct a “thorough review” of the regulation. “We anticipate that the exchange of views in the rulemaking process will result in a regulatory framework that will ensure safe UAS operations and expedite successful UAS integration into the national airspace,” the AIA said.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which represents the nation’s general aviation community, said it has “long expressed concerns about safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system, insisting that commercial UAS be flown by an FAA-approved pilot or operator, have see-and-avoid capabilities, and be flown in compliance with current operating rules and airspace requirements.” While the proposed rule does not address recreational use of drones, AOPA said it has asked the FAA to issue “clear and definitive guidance” for those operations as well. The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) issued a release stating that “regulations relating to the commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems should not apply to the longstanding, educational hobby of flying model aircraft…The AMA will review the proposed rule in more detail to ensure that the rights and privileges of the aeromodeling community are upheld.”

Simultaneous with the FAA’s release of the small-UAS draft regulation, the White House issued a presidential memorandum signed by President Obama that requires federal agencies to provide public notice regarding their use of drones and make available annually a “general summary” of their UAS operations during the previous fiscal year.

The memorandum also calls for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a branch of the Department of Commerce, to lead a “multi-stakeholder engagement process” that includes private-sector participation. The effort will “develop a framework regarding privacy, accountability and transparency for commercial and private UAS use.”