On June 21, 2016, the FAA issued its long-awaited regulations governing “Small Unmanned Aircraft,” or drone operation. The regulations relate to the use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The following outlines some of the key aspects of the 624 pages of regulations.

Possible Uses The regulations provide examples of possible non-recreational drone operations, most of which are existing uses, that can be conducted under the framework of the regulations, including:

  • Crop monitoring/inspection
  • Research and development
  • Educational/academic uses
  • Power-line/pipeline inspection in hilly or mountainous terrain
  • Antenna inspections
  • Aiding certain rescue operations
  • Bridge inspections
  • Aerial photography
  • Wildlife nesting area evaluations

The regulations also allow the transportation of property (but no hazardous materials) for compensation or hire, provided that:

  • The aircraft, including its attached systems, payload and cargo, weigh less than 55 pounds total
  • The flight is conducted within visual line of sight and not from a moving vehicle or aircraft
  • The flight occurs wholly within the bounds of a state (but not within the District of Columbia)
  • The object being carried by the drone is securely attached and does not adversely affect the flight characteristics or controllability of the drone

The regulations allow objects and cargo to be carried externally by the drone, but prohibit dropping an object from the drone in a manner that creates an undue hazard to persons or property.

Operational Limits. The regulations require that drones must:

  • Weigh 55 pounds or less
  • Travel at less than 100 mph groundspeed
  • Reach altitudes of no more than 400 feet above the ground

The drone may not operate over any persons not directly participating in the operation, under a covered structure, or inside a covered stationary vehicle.

The drone can be operated only during daylight, or “civil twilight” (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset, local time), with appropriate anti-collision lighting.

The drone must remain within the visual line of sight of the “remote pilot in command” (and the person manipulating the flight controls if that is different from the remote pilot in command) or within the visual line of sight of the “visual observer.” This means that the remote pilot in command or the visual observer must be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.

The regulations prohibit operation of a drone in a manner that interferes with operations and traffic patterns at airports, heliports, and seaplane bases. A drone must always yield right of way to a manned aircraft.

An FAA airworthiness certification is not required for the drone. However, the remote pilot in command must conduct a preflight check of the drone to ensure that it is in an appropriate condition for safe operation.

Remote Pilot in Command The regulations allow that a drone may be operated only by “a remote pilot in command” who has passed a written test, is vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, and is at least 16 years old, or a person under his or her direct supervision. No person may act as a remote pilot in command or visual observer for more than one unmanned aircraft operation at one time.

Certificate of Waiver The regulations also contain a waiver mechanism to allow individual operations to deviate from many of the restrictions of the regulations if the proposed operation can safely be conducted under the terms of a certificate of waiver.

State and Local Restrictions The FAA acknowledged that the new regulations do not necessarily preempt state and local restrictions and regulations concerning use of drones. The FAA recommends that state or local governments consult with the FAA when they enact operational drone restrictions on flight altitude, flight paths; operational bans; or any regulation of the navigable airspace. The FAA also notes that laws traditionally related to state and local police power—including land use, zoning, privacy, trespass, and law enforcement operations—generally are not subject to Federal regulation. In addition, the FAA has explicitly taken the position that privacy issues are the responsibility of state and local authorities, and shall not be decided by the FAA or dictated in the new regulations. Where, how, and when drones can be used may thus be further restricted by privacy concerns or local regulations beyond the new FAA regulations.