The day the UAS industry has been waiting for is finally here. The FAA has just announced the release of 14 CFR Part 107, which sets out the operating rules for all small unmanned aircraft. This new regulatory system promises to open the skies to commerce in a way that was not possible under the restrictions that accompanied Section 333 exemptions. The new rules will go into effect 60 days after they are published in the Federal Register some time next week.

One of the major differences between Part 107 operations and operations under a Section 333 exemption relate to pilot qualifications. Part 107 creates a new type of pilot's license, referred to as an Operator Certificate. As a result, a manned aircraft pilot's license will no longer be required. In order to obtain an Operator Certificate, the applicant must:

There is no requirement that the applicant obtain a medical certificate, pass a vision test, or demonstrate any flight proficiency. The FAA estimates the application process will take six to eight weeks to complete.

As with other types of pilot licenses, there is also a currency requirement, with the certificate holder required to pass an updated test every two years. The FAA also has made clear that all of the civil penalty and enforcement mechanisms used against unsafe manned aircraft pilots will also be used against unsafe UAS operators.

On the operational side, Part 107 flights are limited to vehicles weighing 55 pounds or less, and must occur below 400' of altitude and at speeds below 100 miles per hour. The most significant restriction on Part 107 operators is the limitation of all flights to visual line of sight (VLOS) during daylight hours. This means that the controller must be able to see the UAS at all times. Binoculars, telescopes, first-person view cameras and other vision aids are not permitted.

It is interesting to see what proposals did not make it into Part 107. The most significant exclusion was the so called "micro-UAS" rule, which would have completely carved out all UAS weighing below 2 kg from any federal regulation. The FAA has decided to pursue this issue in a more methodical way, and set the groundwork for a full blown micro-UAS rulemaking with the conclusion of its micro-UAS ARC earlier this spring.

Overall, the final rule is very similar to the draft rules released 16 months ago. The altitude limit was reduced from 500' to 400', the age for the pilot certificate was reduced from 17 to 16, and the accident reporting requirements were clarified. Interestingly, flights are permitted at altitudes over 400' if the UAS is within 400' of a structure. For example, if the UAS is used to inspect a tower that is 1200' tall, the UAS can do so, as long as it stays within 400' of the tower. In addition, the rule has provisions allowing Part 107 operators to obtain waivers from some of the flight restrictions, such as night operations, flight from a moving vehicle, and operations over bystanders.

So, does the release of Part 107 mean that the Section 333 exemptions are no longer valid? No, all existing exemptions are still in effect. Operators can fly under their exemptions or under Part 107 at their option. Of course, only exemption holders can fly between now and the day the rules actually go into effect in late August of this year.