On February 15, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that provides a proposed framework for unmanned aircraft system (UAS) regulations.  Limited to UAS under 55 lbs, daylight and visual line of sight (VLOS) operations, the NPRM attempts to wrangle the ever-advancing UAS technology into flexible rules that maximize safety and the efficient use of UAS in the national airspace.  The NPRM responds to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012's call for UAS rules.  A public comment period, which will last 60 days, will open following publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register.  Related to the NPRM and additionally on February 15th, the President issued a Memorandum directing agencies to develop procedures to address the likely protection of privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties concerns related to the implementation of UAS operations in government use.

While the path for UAS commercial operation remains uncertain, the NPRM and Presidential Memorandum signify first steps toward commercial UAS operation within United States airspace in the near future.  With the advent of UAS rules, it may not be long before UAS are used for everyday functions.

The FAA Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Small UAS

Under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012,1 the FAA has temporary authority to grant exemptions for non-recreational UAS operations until UAS regulations are finalized.2  Given the potential variance in UAS size, from "wingspan[s] as large as jet airliner or smaller than a radio-controlled model airplane," and the rapidly changing nature of UAS technology, integrating UAS commercial use into the "busiest [and] most complex airspace in the world" is no easy feat.3 The FAA's NPRM responds to the need for UAS rules and proposes regulations that will establish commercial use of small UAS, under

55 pounds, within United States airspace.  Focusing on a "safe, efficient, and timely" UAS integration, the FAA stated its awareness of the need to create rules that are flexible enough to accommodate UAS strides in technologies while maintaining safe civil airspace.4 Highlights of the NPRM for small UAS include:5

  1. "Operators" instead of pilots:  Rather than possessing a pilot's license, operators would be required to: (1) be 17 years of age or over; (2) pass the Transportation Security Administration's "initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center," as well as "recurrent aeronautical knowledge tests every 24 months"; (3) attain "an unmanned operator certificate with a small UAS rating"; (4) report any UAS accident resulting in injury or property damage to the FAA within 10 days of occurrence and conduct preflight inspections to confirm the UAS is safe for operation; and (5) upon FAA request, make the UAS and any required documents available for inspection or testing.
  2. Observers not required, but UAS must be within the operator's visual line of sight:  Observers are not required.  However, all UAS activity must remain within the VLOS of the operator or an observer.  The UAS must remain close enough to the operator that the operator can see the UAS without any magnifying device other than corrective lenses.  A first-person view camera may not be used to satisfy this "see and avoid requirement," but may be used if the UAS fulfills the "see and avoid" requirement in other ways.  Further, no one may be an operator or observer for more than one UAS operation at one time.
  3. Markings required, while airworthiness certification is not:  Although operators are responsible for making pre-flight inspections and maintaining the UAS in a safe operating condition, the FAA airworthiness certification is not mandatory.  However, aircraft markings are required.
  4. Safe UAS operation:  To maximize safety, the proposed rules prohibit reckless or careless operations, require preflight inspections by the operator, and prohibit UAS operation by any person who knows of, or has reason to know of, a mental or physical condition that may limit their ability to safely operate a UAS.  The rules also require that the UAS "may not operate over any persons not directly involved" in the UAS operation.  Finally, all UAS must yield the right-of-way to other manned and unmanned aircraft.
  5. Size, speed, and altitude requirements:  In addition to the weight limit of 55 pounds (25 kg), the UAS may not exceed a maximum airspeed faster than 100 mph (87 knots) or a maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level.
  6. Timing and weather requirements:  All UAS operation is limited to daylight hours only.  Additionally, there must be a minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from the operator's control station.
  7. Airspace requirements:  UAS operations are prohibited in Class A airspace (above 18,000 feet) and are allowed within Class G airspace (all airspace below 600 feet and airspace not controlled by other classes) without permission.  Meanwhile, UAS may be allowed to operate in Class B, Class C, Class D, and Class E airspaces with air traffic control's permission.6