For years, the unmanned aircraft industry was dominated by hobbyists who flew small model aircraft for personal enjoyment. With the proliferation of more powerful drone aircraft that can fly farther, higher and faster, businesses have increasingly begun to develop and implement plans for the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Such economic development has, until recently, been limited because of unfriendly UAS-related regulations. The skyscape may soon be changing. A proposed new set of regulations from the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) should slightly loosen current restrictions, setting the table for business expansion.
Presently, any aircraft operation (including UAS operation) in the national airspace requires a licensed pilot and operational approval from the FAA. Any business wanting to fly a UAS for business purposes presently needs one of three items:
- A Special Airworthiness Certificate in the Experimental Category (SAC-EC) permitting a business to perform research and development, crew training, and market surveys;
- A UAS type and Airworthiness Certificate in the Restricted Category; or
- A Petition for Exemption with a civil Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for civil aircraft to perform commercial operations in low-risk, controlled environments.
Such restrictive regulations do not fit the current scientific and business landscape. As a result, the FAA recently proposed new regulations intended to take effect in April 2016. According to the FAA, the new regulations are intended to “allow routine use of certain small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in today’s aviation system, while maintaining flexibility to accommodate future technological innovations.” Under the proposed rules, UAS users are deemed “operators” and not “pilots”, which means the users do not have to obtain a pilot’s license. Instead of a pilot’s license, an operator will have to pass an aeronautical knowledge test to obtain an operator certificate from the FAA. Thus, the pool of potential operators could be quite large and companies will not have to pay premium wages for pilots. In addition, the FAA’s proposed rules will permit operation of UAS at an airspeed of up to 100 mph and at an altitude of 500 feet. These inclusions in the rule will more easily open the door to many legal business uses such as surveillance, aerial photography, data collection and eventually package delivery.
While these new regulations are a step in the right direction, increased concerns over the dangers posed by private UAS operation have caused the FAA to take a cautious approach. As UAS sales have skyrocketed, so too have safety concerns. UAS drones were in the news on almost a weekly basis in 2015. One drone crashed at the White House; one malfunctioned, fell and nearly struck a world class skier; others flew too close to passenger aircraft and still others photographed private citizens without their permission. Therefore, the proposed regulations preclude private operation of a UAS after sunset and before sunrise. In addition, the proposal regulations contain a line-of-sight restriction that reads, “at all times the small unmanned aircraft must remain close enough to the operator for the operator to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.” No operator may fly a UAS over groups of people, such as at a sporting event. Also, no operator may fly more than one UAS at the same time. In addition, a commercial UAS will still need certification by and registration with the FAA.
As with every scientific advancement, the law must eventually evolve to catch up with the science. While the proposed rules do not go far enough to please all business owners, scientists and UAS manufacturers, they still represent progress. We expect that progress to continue, all be it slowly, which is why we will monitor these laws and share news about them with our audience on a regular basis here in the DRONE LAW BLOG. Stay tuned…