The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has released a long-awaited final regulation allowing for the commercial, non-recreational use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—popularly known as drones—weighing less than 55 pounds. The Part 107 regulation, which takes effect in late August, permits daylight-only flights that remain within the visual line of sight of the drone operator. Beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations and flights over people will require waivers to the rule.
Speaking during a White House-led teleconference on June 21, secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta described a regulation that differs slightly from the draft rule the FAA released in February 2015. Among differences, the draft rule specified that commercial drone pilots would have to be at least 17 years old, and it set a maximum operating altitude of 500 feet above ground level. Part 107 reduces the required age of the pilot to 16 and the maximum altitude to 400 feet. Unlike the draft rule, the final regulation allows for operations during “civil twilight” if the drone is equipped with anti-collision lighting that is visible for at least 3 statute miles—and it states that the prohibition of nighttime operations “will also be waivable.”
Similarly, there is the possibility of obtaining an exemption, or waiver, for BVLOS operations and flights over people who are not directly participating in the operation—capabilities that could be important for proposed package delivery and other applications of small drones. “The rule allows for a waiver process” Huerta said. “What the applicant will need to do is demonstrate how we can maintain safety and what mitigations they put in place for those sorts of operations.”
Part 107 does not contain a separate micro UAS classification for drones weighing less than 4.4 pounds, a possibility that was raised in the draft rule. “[T]he FAA has determined that a different framework to regulate micro UAS is called for,” the regulation states; it adds that the agency “is moving expeditiously” to produce a separate draft regulation.
The pilot-in-command of a small drone must either hold a “remote pilot” airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who holds a remote-pilot certificate. Qualifying for the certificate requires that a person pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center, or earn a pilot’s certificate other than student pilot under Part 61 training regulations. Those already holding a Part 61 pilot certificate can complete an online training course for the small UAS rating. The FAA estimates that the cost to an individual of obtaining a remote pilot certificate will be $150. According to the final rule, drone flights in all classes of airspace below 18,000 feet—other than in Class G uncontrolled airspace—require ATC permission.
Importantly, FAA airworthiness certification of the drone is not required; the remote pilot must only conduct a preflight check to ensure the drone is in a safe condition for flight. Requiring manufacturers to go through the expensive and time-consuming process of airworthiness certification could have been a show stopper for some. Reacting to the release of the final regulation, Shenzhen, China-based DJI, the dominant supplier of small drones, said Part 107 “will make it easier” for American businesses, nonprofit organizations and government agencies to use drones.
“This is a watershed moment in how advanced technology can improve lives, as the small UAS rule allows companies, farmers, researchers and rescue services alike to explore how drones can let them do more at a lower cost and a lower risk,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI vice president of policy and legal affairs. “After years of work, DJI and other advocates for reasonable regulation are pleased that the FAA now has a basic set of rules for integrating commercial drone operations into the national airspace.”
Part 107 explains that the FAA has been working to incorporate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system since 2008—the year that acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell signed an order to create a small UAS aviation rulemaking committee. But former FAA executives have told AIN that the effort to draft the rule went through several iterations dating to the early 2000s.
Until now, individuals and companies seeking to fly drones for commercial purposes have had to apply for an exemption through the Section 333 provision of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. During the teleconference, Foxx reported that his department and the FAA have processed some 7,000 exemptions to date.
Those commercial exemptions the FAA has already granted remain in effect. “The Section 333 exemptions will exist until they expire,” Huerta explained during the teleconference. “Anyone who has an existing exemption is entitled to maintain that exemption until its expiration date that is included within the exemption itself. Beyond that, the operations that are defined in the rule are operations that can be conducted as of right, and if (operators) desire to look at things beyond visual line of sight, for example, then they go through the new waiver process that is defined in the rule.”