The commercial UAS industry in the U.S. took a giant leap forward yesterday, as DOT and FAA released its Final Rule for the Operation and Certification of Small UAS (Part 107). At 624 pages long, there is certainly a lot to digest and we will be following up with more analysis of Part 107 throughout this week and next. For the time being, we wanted to provide you with a high-level overview of Part 107 and to identify a few areas where the FAA surprised us (mostly in a good way).
Timeline for Implementation
Part 107 will become effective 60 days after it is officially published in the Federal Register in the next 5-7 days making August the next milestone date for our industry.
As a threshold matter, we would note that the FAA determined that calling the individual operating the UAS the “operator” might be confusing, so the person operating the UAS will now be referred to as the “Remote Pilot.” The Remote Pilot Certificate will replace current requirements to hold a manned pilot’s license, which is one of the biggest hurdles to operating UAS commercially under a Section 333 Exemption.
To be eligible for a Remote Pilot Certificate, a person must:
- Be 16 years of age;
- Be able to read, write, speak and understand English;
- Pass an aeronautical knowledge exam which will be administered at one of the FAA’s 700+ approved testing centers around the country; and
- Pass a TSA security background check.
Part 107 contains a process for seeking a certificate of waiver to authorize deviations from certain aspects of Part 107. We will provide additional analysis on the waiver process in the coming days, but for now it is important to note that the waiver process establishes a pathway for conducting certain operations when an applicant demonstrates that a proposed UAS operation can be conduct safely, including, for example:
- Flights directly over non-participants;
- Night flights;
- Flights beyond visual line of sight; and
- Operation of multiple small UAS by a single pilot.
Surprises in Part 107
Part 107 largely tracks what the FAA originally proposed in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) back in February 2015. There were however a few pleasant surprises that will benefit a wide range of commercial UAS operators.
Maximum Operating Altitude
The proposed rule initially limited UAS operations to no more than 500’ AGL. Under the Final Rule, the maximum operating altitude has been reduced to 400’ AGL. However, UAS will be able to operate above 400’ AGL if the UAS is flown within a 400’ radius of a structure, and the UAS does not fly higher than 400’ above the structure’s immediate uppermost limit. This means for example, that if a UAS were operating near a 1000’ building, the UAS could conceivably be operated at an altitude of 1400’ AGL if it remained within a 400’ radius of the building. This change will likely benefit UAS operators that perform inspections of tall structures, such as wind turbines and towers.
Operating from a Moving Vehicle in Sparsely Populated Areas
Under Part 107 the FAA will allow a UAS to be operated from a moving vehicle in sparsely populated areas. This change will likely benefit companies that need to perform inspections of objects that extend for miles, such as power lines, pipelines, and railways. The FAA’s visual line of sight requirements limit the usefulness of using UAS to inspect these types of linear assets because it is simply not practical to have to stop operations every mile or so to get up and move the ground control station. Permitting operations from a moving vehicle in sparsely populated areas will allow UAS operators to extend the range of UAS operation, while also satisfying the FAA’s visual line of sight requirements.
Clarifying the Prohibition on Flights Over People
Part 107 will prohibit UAS operations over a human being who is not directly participating in the operation of the UAS (e.g., the pilot and visual observer), or located under a covered structure or inside a stationary vehicle that provides reasonable protection from a falling UA. While this restriction is not as onerous as the FAA’s 500 foot buffer rule from non-participants while operating under a Section 333 Exemption, many commenters were concerned with the fact that the FAA never clarified in the NPRM what it meant to “operate over” a human being. In response, the FAA clarified in its Part 107 analysis that, the term “over” means UAS flight directly over any part of a person. While this restriction will still create problems for some UAS operations, particularly those in more urban and suburban environments where it is difficult to control the flow of people on the ground, Part 107’s restriction on flights directly over people is a lot less restrictive than what is currently required for most operators flying under a Section 333 Exemption.
External Load, Towing and Carrier Operations
Contrary to what was proposed in the NPRM, the FAA will permit external load and towing operations in some circumstances. Part 107 will allow limited carrier operations involving transport of property for compensation (i.e., package delivery). The one major caveat however is that the carrier operations would have to comply with Part 107’s visual line of sight requirement. While the visual line of sight requirement is a waivable requirement under Part 107, the requirement will not be waivable in the context of carrier operations.
There is a lot more to cover in Part 107, and if you are not inclined to read the 600+ page rule, the FAA’s 3-page summary of Part 107 is available here. In the coming days we will provide you with more details on the FAA’s plan for current Section 333 Exemption holders and those with pending petitions. We will also dig a bit deeper into the FAA’s new waiver process under Part 107.