On January 14, 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed long-awaited rules allowing drone flights over people and at night, which, if adopted, will remove the requirement for drone operators to obtain FAA waivers for many of these operations. In conjunction with these rules, the FAA also issued a separate notice seeking comments on public safety and national security concerns associated with small drones. The FAA has not announced deadlines for public comment on the rules or the public safety and security concerns. Nevertheless, stakeholders should begin preparing comments as soon as possible, because the comment period may be short.

Under the proposed rules, night operations will be permissible if the pilot has received additional knowledge testing or training and the drone has an anti-collision light.

The rules will also allow drone flights over people if the drone falls within one of three new categories, which are based on injury-risk factors. Drones in the highest-risk category, however, will be prohibited from hovering over open-air assemblies of people unless they are in a closed or restricted-access area, like a stadium, and have been notified of the drone operation. Further, any drone that will fly over people must bear a label identifying its category, except those in the lowest-risk category (i.e., drones weighing .55 pounds or less).

Manufacturers of drones weighing more than .55 pounds who want them to qualify for flights over people must certify that the drones meet specified impact-force thresholds and will not contain exposed propellers or rotating parts that will cut human skin. They also must provide pilot instructions, allow FAA inspections, have procedures to notify the FAA and the public of safety defects, and keep records related to the drones.

The proposed rules also include other changes to the FAA’s current drone rules, such as permitting drone pilots to satisfy recertification requirements through training rather than by retaking the certification test.

The proposed rules do not, however, alter existing altitude or airspeed requirements. They also apply only to small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), which are drones that weigh less than 55 pounds. Operating a UAS weighing 55 pounds or more still requires an FAA waiver.

Recognizing that operating drones under the proposed rules impacts public safety and national security, the FAA is also seeking comments on various public safety and national security issues. It has posed questions about implementing minimum stand-off distances (i.e., the distance between a small UAS and the nearest person), performance limitations, UAS identification requirements, payload restrictions and design requirements for critical UAS components.