On February 15, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) issued its long awaited proposed rules on the domestic use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”).  The 196 page document proposes rules to address only UAS weighing less than 55 lbs (including attached camera weight, etc.).

As discussed in more detail in our firm’s UAS Team Blog, the proposals provide a less restrictive framework than many expected.  Importantly, the rules are merely proposals and are open to public comment for a sixty (60) day period.

Notably, recent Section 333 exemptions were granted to applicants who uniformly included the voluntary commitment to utilize licensed pilots as operators.  Many expected at least a private pilot licensed operator to be a threshold requirement and many feared a commercial pilot license requirement.  Possibly recognizing the current and future use of UAS by non-pilot enthusiasts, the FAA proposed a new framework allowing for anyone to become an authorized operator so long as he/she is at least 17 years old, passes an aeronautical knowledge test given at a FAA testing center and is vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration (“TSA”).

A few additional proposed rules of interest include daylight only and visual line of sight operation at or below 500 feet.  Importantly, no airworthiness certificate will be required for UAS models weighing less than the 55 pound limit opening the door for use of UAS models currently on and coming to the market.  Finally, the UAS may not be operated over any persons “not directly involved in the operation” unless it qualifies as a MicroUAS which is one weighing 4.4 pounds or less which is itself a category for which the FAA has not yet proposed rules.

Of particular interest to those in the precision agriculture industry, the proposed rules recognize “Crop monitoring/inspection” as an anticipated use.  The proposed rules create a flexible regulatory environment for data providers, farm retailers and farmers themselves to legally operate UAS over their crops as the use of data improves efficiency and yields in the years ahead.   While section 333 exemptions remain the best avenue to get a head-start on developing UAS systems to monitor crop yield and stress, the gates are one step closer to opening for the less-restrictive development of these platforms.  The current language appears to prohibit the flight of UAS directly over fields with farmhands directly below the flight path, therefore this may be problematic for some farms desiring UAS use during the busy seasons.

Additionally, the FAA did not fully address ‘external load’ or towing usage and invited comments on the subjects.  As we’ve seen in other countries, the use of UAS for targeted herbicide/pesticide application is a possibility but its long term viability and authorized use remains unknown.  It is very likely that crop dusters will monitor this language closely.