Although the proposed regulations for unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”) were due last year, the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has finally proposed a framework of regulations that would allow routine use of certain small unmanned aircraft systems (“sUAS”) in the National Airspace System (“NAS”) for commercial operations.  These proposed regulations would govern any commercial entity that intends to use sUAS in the course of its business and are not restricted to entities whose service is to supply either sUAS or operations of sUAS to commercial entities.  The new rules would not apply to model aircraft.  In contrast to the popular individualized exemption process that began last spring, authorized by section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”), these proposed regulations would be generally applicable.  Below is a chart showing the operational limitations, operator certification and responsibilities, and aircraft requirements in the sUAS proposed rule, and where they differ, in general, from the section 333 exemptions recently granted.  When finalized, the only entities needing an exemption will be those whose need to operate outside of the sUAS regulatory scheme.   

Some of the differences between the proposed rule and the exemptions granted per section 333 are noteworthy.  For instance, under the proposed rule, the sUAS could be operated by an “operator” rather than a pilot-in-change (“PIC”).  The operator would need to obtain an unmanned aircraft (“UA”) operator certificate with a sUAS rating from the FAA and retake a knowledge test every 24 months.  These tests and certificates will be created by the FAA and administered by FAA-approved knowledge testing centers.  In recent grants of exemption, the FAA was not swayed by requests to allow a PIC that did not hold at least a private pilot’s license.  The proposed rules also relax the visual observer (“VO”) requirement, making the use of a VO optional rather than mandatory as required by the exemptions.  Once finalized, the proposed rule will likely streamline the process for many UAS operations. 

Another interesting aspect of the proposed rule is the estimate of the regulatory costs associated with sUAS operations.  Entities wanting to use sUAS for commercial purposes now will need to weigh the cost of the current section 333 exemption process against the costs of waiting until the rule is finalized (which may not be until 2017).  

Comments will be accepted for 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register.  The FAA will also hold public meetings to allow for other opportunities to provide feedback on the proposed regulations.  Industry will want to weigh in on whether operations should be allowed beyond the visual line of sight (“VLOS”), the feasibility of micro UAS (“mUAS”) rules, and whether the FAA knowledge test and certification is sufficient for sUAS operators.

Please click here to view the table.