On February 15, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration released its long-awaited proposed rules for commercial operations of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS). The proposed rules will eliminate the existing prohibition against commercial use of small unmanned aircraft, which the FAA defines as weighing less than 55 pounds. Commercial operations that could occur under the rules include aerial photography (of real estate, for movies, etc.), antenna inspection, bridge inspection, crop monitoring and inspection, crop treatment, education, pipeline inspection, power line inspection, stack inspection, research and development, search and rescue, and wildlife nesting area evaluations.

Key aspects of the proposed rules include:

  • The aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds.
  • An airworthiness certificate is unnecessary for the aircraft.
  • The aircraft must be registered and display its registration number.
  • The aircraft must remain close enough for the operator to be capable of seeing it unaided.
  • The aircraft may not be operated over any persons who are not directly involved with the operation, unless they are protected by a covering.
  • Operations must occur during daylight.
  • The maximum airspeed cannot exceed 100 miles per hour (87 knots).
  • The maximum altitude cannot exceed 500 feet above ground level.
  • The minimum weather visibility at the control station cannot be less than three miles, and the aircraft must be at least 500 feet below and 2,000 feet horizontally away from a cloud.
  • Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are permitted with the required permission from air traffic control (ATC).
  • Operations in Class G airspace are permitted without ATC permission.
  • Preflight inspection of the sUAS is required.
  • The pilot must be at least 17 years old and licensed by the FAA to operate sUAS. Pilots must pass a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test every 24 months.
  • Visual observers are optional.

On the whole, industry seems pleased with the proposed regulations, which set forth what many are calling reasonable restrictions. Others are disappointed, however, that the proposed regulations do not go far enough by allowing unfettered commercial operations in urban areas beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. The public comment period will provide stakeholders with an opportunity to fully voice their opinions and suggest changes for the final rules.

Given the broad interest in and novelty of the proposed rules, finalizing the rules may take the FAA a significant period, which some estimate will be two to three years. Until the FAA finalizes the rules, it is the status quo – meaning that commercial operations remain prohibited unless the operator obtains from the FAA a special airworthiness certificate or a Section 333 exemption, which still only allows restricted commercial operations.

Comments on the proposed rules will be due 60 days after they are officially noticed and published in the Federal Register, which is expected later this week.