The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released today its long-awaited final rule authorizing commercial operations of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones. This rule will allow businesses seeking to fly certain UAS to take to the skies without having to obtain special FAA authority. Becoming effective in August, this is the first set of rules for routine commercial operations of drones. The regulation governs operations for UAS weighing less than 55 lbs. (25 kg). The final rule, together with FAA’s response to the thousands of comments it received on the proposed version of the rule issued last year, amount to over 600 pages. While we will continue to analyze the rule and report further on its requirements, the following briefly summarizes some of the more critical aspects of this new regulation.

Operational Limitations

The rule sets forth various operational limitations. Those currently holding section 333 authorizations will recognize many of the restrictions set forth in the final rule. In addition to the requirement that the aircraft weigh less than 55 lbs., the following limitations apply:

  • Visual line-of-sight (VLOS) operations only—i.e., the aircraft must remain within VLOS of the remote pilot in command and the person maneuvering the flight controls;
  • The aircraft cannot be flown over any persons not participating in the flight, under a covered structure and not inside a covered stationary vehicle;
  • Flights must be conducted during daylight hours only, including 30 minutes before official sunrise and 30 minutes after official sunset with anti-collision lighting;
  • The maximum ground speed is 100 mph (87 knots);
  • The maximum altitude is 400 feet above ground level (AGL) or, if higher than 400 feet AGL, remain within 400 feet of a structure;
  • Minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from the control station;
  • Operations in Class G airspace allowed without Air Traffic Control (ATC) permission and operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace allowed with the required ATC permission;
  • No carriage of hazardous materials; and
  • Transportation of property for compensation is permitted if the aircraft and payload weigh less than 55 lbs. total and the flight is conducted with VLOS and not from moving vehicle or aircraft.

According to the FAA, since UAS involve quickly changing technology, a key provision of the regulation is a waiver mechanism to allow individual operation to deviate from many of the operational restrictions if the FAA finds that a proposed operation can safely be conducted under the terms of a certificate of waiver.

Pilot Requirements

The final rule also sets forth requirements pertaining to the remote pilot in command:

  • The person operating the UAS 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;
  • To obtain a remote pilot certificate, a person must (1) pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center or hold a part 61 pilot certificate with a flight review within the last 24 months, (2) be vetted by TSA, and (3) be at least 16 years old; and
  • The remote pilot in command must:
    • upon request, make the small UAS and associated records available to FAA for inspection or testing;
    • report to the FAA within 10 days of any operation that results in serious injury or property damage of at least $500;
    • conduct pre-flight inspections of the aircraft and control system; and
    • ensure that the aircraft meets the FAA’s registration requirements.

An FAA airworthiness certification is not required for such operations, given that the remote pilot in command is required to conduct a pre-flight inspection of the UAS to ensure that it is in a condition for safe operation.

Recreational Operations Not Covered

In its summary of the final rule, FAA underscores the point that the regulation does not apply to model aircraft—i.e., aircraft flown for hobby or recreational purposes. Rather, the rule codifies the FAA’s enforcement authority by prohibiting model aircraft operations from endangering the safety of the National Airspace System.