Even by the standards of the exciting and ever-changing landscape of unmanned aerial system (UAS) or drone law, the month of April was eventful.   In April, we observed in at least one case the Federal Aviation Administration significantly relax its commercial UAS operational restrictions, as well as an enormous step forward in the rule making process for what many hope will be final regulations regarding the commercial operation of all small UAS in the national airspace.

Nighttime commercial UAS operations now permitted by FAA

Just recently, the Federal Aviation Administration very quietly made a precedential policy shift in issuing the first Section 333 exemption permitting the commercial operation of UAS during night.  On April 18, 2016, the FAA issued exemption No. 16341, which will permit the US unit of Toronto-based Industrial Skyworks, Inc. to perform commercial UAS operations during the night for building and roof inspection. 

Prior to this exemption, the FAA had maintained a consistent policy that commercial operations of UAS in the national airspace be limited to daytime operations due to heightened safety concerns with night-time operations.  Indeed, the exemption granted to Industrial Skyworks makes clear that the FAA still considers “operations at night to pose a higher safety risk”  due to reduced visibility impacting the operator’s ability to locate both the UAS and other aircraft in close proximity.  However, the heightened safety measures that the petitioner will employ along with the petitioner’s demonstration that the airspace and ground below tends to be less populated at night, may have precipitated this policy shift.

Companies seeking permission for similar nighttime commercial operations should pay close attention to the unique operational requirements and restrictions imposed by the FAA in this exemption in order to take advantage of round-the-clock commercial operations. 

Small UAS rule heads to White House OIRA for final review

The long-awaited small UAS rule may be coming sooner than many had anticipated.  In late April, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) received FAA’s Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which sets forth the FAA’s proposed rules and requirements for the non-hobby or non-recreational (read: commercial) operation of UAS weighing less than 55 pounds.  While OIRA review is procedurally limited to 90 days pursuant to executive order, it can often occur within half that time.

Those reading should take note of this short review period because the OIRA review process offers industry stakeholders or interested parties their last chance to provide input prior to a final rule being issued.  Indeed, it is OIRA’s policy to “meet with any party interested in discussing issues,” including “small businesses or other business or industry interests.” 

With the multitude of issues involved in UAS integration and the commercial operation of UAS in the domestic airspace,  industry stakeholders are advised to take part in this important step in the final rule making process.