Although they have primarily been used as military technologies in the past, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, have become contenders in the consumer and commercial sectors as well. They’ve become a regular feature at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and their use in farming, product shipping and other enterprise solutions continues to be of great interest to companies.
However, the perceived risks of having flying devices available to such a wide array of consumers and business interests has created a bit of a regulatory dust-up involving the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A Senate hearing on drones held last March highlighted the FAA’s concerns regarding drone use beyond an operator’s line of sight as well as the need for robust sense-and-avoid technologies to prevent crashes and injuries to humans on the ground. A rule framework proposed by the FAA around that same time represented a good deal of restriction on commercial interests regarding drone usage. Members of Capitol Hill introduced legislation last May which looked to increase the commercial use of drones, although that bill is currently languishing in committee. The FAA’s strict rules and drone registration process has prompted many questions among stakeholders regarding the efficacy of U.S. drone policy, some of which were explored in a panel discussion held this April at the Heritage Foundation.
The latest regulatory development at the FAA concerning UAVs is the issue of a new rule regarding small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) which went into effect August 29th. The new rule, known as Part 107, allow for the transportation of property for compensation or hire provided that the total weight of the drone and its cargo do not exceed 55 pounds, the flight is conducted within the visual line of sight of an operator and the flight occurs wholly within the boundary of a single state.
Despite enabling some additional use of drones for commercial interests, the new FAA rule is still restrictive of UAV usage in various ways. Along with the weight and line of sight requirements, unmanned aircraft may not be operated overhead of any person who not directly involved in the UAV operation or is not under a covered structure. Additionally, drone craft can only be operated during daylight or civil twilight hours at a maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level. Drone operations at altitudes higher than 400 feet above ground level if the drone remains within 400 feet of a structure.
One impact of the new small UAS rules issued by the FAA is that commercial drone operations can take place without obtaining a special exemption from the federal regulatory agency. Previously, UAV operators who were looking to use drones for purposes beyond hobby or recreational activities had to obtain a Section 333 exemption from the FAA to do so. As of August 26th, the FAA had granted 5,552 Section 333 exemptions for commercial UAS operators.
The FAA has also been granting exemptions to the Part 107 small UAS rule for commercial operations outside of those regulations. According to reports from Aviation International News, the FAA granted 76 waivers on its Part 107 rule on the same day that the rule went into effect. Most of those waivers have been granted to exempt certain commercial operations from the daylight-only flight restriction, allowing for nighttime operation of drones.
The FAA’s small UAS rule also contains new language on the certification of remote operators commanding drones. To operate a small UAS legally under the FAA’s new framework, an operator must either hold a remote pilot airman certificate or be under the direct supervision of another person holding such a certificate. Qualifying for a remote pilot certification involves passing an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center and vetting by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Those holding a Part 61 pilot certificate can obtain a temporary remote pilot certificate but still must be successfully vetted by the TSA.
The FAA expects that the new rules will greatly increase the number of commercial drone operations which are currently active in American airspace. Media reports indicate that as many as 600,000 commercial UAVs could be operational within a year of Part 107 becoming the effective rule regarding small UAS operation, a sizable jump from the more than 5,000 commercial UAV operations which were active prior to the new rule. The drone industry is not the only sector which is expected to expand thanks to the FAA’s new commercial drone rules. The Washington Business Journal recently reported on advances in the counterdrone industry, which includes technologies designed to ensure that drones are being operated in accordance with the law.