The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) new rule on the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones), announced today, will eliminate the current requirement for commercial drone operators to hold a manned aircraft pilot's license and will spur significant innovation in commercial drone operation.

The long-awaited rule, which will be implemented in late August 2016, will require commercial drone operators to pass a knowledge test.

Rule Highlights

The FAA, in a roll-out conference call this morning, announced that the rule – which applies to commercial operations of drones weighing less than 55 pounds – will retain some of the limitations currently in place for UAS operators who have received exemptions from the FAA in the past year. For example, under the new rule:

  • the aircraft must be less than 55 pounds
  • the aircraft must operate at 100 mph or less
  • operators may not fly UAS over people who are not participating in the flight operation, except in emergency situations
  • flights are limited to daytime hours
  • operations may only be conducted within visual line of sight

Commercial operators will need to seek a special FAA waiver to deviate from these restrictions.

The new rule will limit commercial UAS operations to 400 feet above ground level. The maximum speed will be 100 mph.

The biggest change from existing requirements is the FAA's decision to relax the requirement for a pilot's license. Currently, with exemptions the FAA has granted under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, only pilots holding a commercial, private, recreation or sport pilot (Part 61) certificate have been permitted to commercially operate UAS.

Under the final UAS rule, however, individuals holding one of those types of pilot certificates will take a special online training course and be granted a rating permitting them to fly small UAS commercially.

Beginning in August, when the final rule is implemented, people who do not have a pilot's license will need to take a knowledge test that will be available at FAA-approved test centers located throughout the country. Those who pass the test will receive a "remote pilot airman certificate" with a small UAS rating.

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