The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has taken a large first step toward allowing operators to legally fly small “drones” or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for commercial purposes on a widespread basis in the United States. On February 15, 2015, the FAA released long-awaited proposed regulations to integrate small UAS (those weighing less than 55 pounds) into the national airspace, paving the way for myriad agricultural uses like croup scouting or soil sampling. These proposed rules, which are subject to a 60-day public comment period, are much less restrictive than many in the industry had feared. Although commercial UAS cannot legally fly until the rules are finalized, the proposed rules are a solid first step toward integrating the burgeoning technology into the national airspace. They are largely good news for agriculture.
As we’ve explained in past articles, although farmers can currently fly UAS for hobby purposes, the FAA has taken the position that flying UAS for any commercial reason—including farming uses—is generally prohibited. The only groups authorized to fly UAS commercially are those companies to whom the FAA has granted special exemptions. As of February, the FAA had granted 24 regulatory exemptions for the commercial use of UAS in the United States. These exemptions have allowed their recipients to use small UAS for commercial purposes by waiving the certificate of airworthiness required for other aircraft. These exemptions, however, still require the companies to fly their UAS only with a licensed pilot and only with a separate visual observer. Many were concerned that the FAA would integrate these costly requirements into their new small UAS proposal. That didn’t happen.
In its proposed regulations, the FAA states that it will create a new “unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating.” This certificate would be required before a person could legally operate a commercial UAS. To obtain this new certificate, an operator—who would need to be at least 17 years old—would have to pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center. The applicant would also have to pass a security screen conducted by the Transportation Security Administration. To be eligible for the certificate, the applicant would have to read, speak, write, and understand the English language. This is a requirement for all FAA-issued airman certificates.
To retain the non-expiring certificate, a small UAS operator would have to pass a knowledge test every 24 months. The operator would also agree to conduct an inspection before every flight to ensure that the small UAS was safe for operation. Although the proposed rules would eliminate the need for an airworthiness certificate for small UAS, they would require the operator to register the aircraft with the FAA and maintain standard aircraft markings on the UAS. The FAA estimates that the start-up cost to a new operator seeking to comply with the proposed testing and registration requirements would be only $214. Once authorized, the operator of a small commercial UAS would agree to comply with several other restrictions:
The proposed regulations would require the operator to keep the UAS within the visual line-of-sight of the operator or a separate visual observer at all times. The visual observer, who would not need a certificate, would be in constant communication with the operator to ensure that this requirement is met. The operator or visual observer could not use any visual device (other than corrective lenses) to comply with this rule. As long as the UAS remains in the operator’s own visual line-of-sight at all times, the proposed regulations do not require the use of a separate visual observer.
The proposed rules would restrict UAS operations to daylight hours (from official sunrise to official sunset). The FAA notes that this may particularly negatively impact operators in northern latitudes, such as Alaska, and states that it is willing to consider “reasonable mitigation” which would ensure that an equivalent level of safety is insured while flying in a low-light area. The proposed regulations also state that the operator could only fly the aircraft at a maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level and at a maximum airspeed of 100 miles per hour. The regulations would restrict operators from flying over any persons not directly involved in the UAS operation. Operators would also have to yield the right-of-way to other aircraft, manned or unmanned.
The FAA has reiterated that the proposed rules would not apply to model aircraft (those UAS flown for “hobby” purposes), but that model aircraft users would continue to operate under the parameters that they cannot “endanger the safety of the national airspace.”
As noted above, the proposed rules do not have the force of law. This means that commercial UAS operators are not yet free to fly, absent a case-by-case exemption from the FAA. And those exemptions have all required the use of a certified private pilot. But at least the ball is rolling, be it ever so slowly. During the next several months, the FAA will consider the comments it receives and consider whether to revise the proposed rules. It is not clear when the FAA will issue the final regulations. In the meantime, it is clear that the technology will continue to march forward and that the uses for UAS will continue to grow. And with the long-promised proposed regulations finally a reality, there is hope that the lack of a regulatory framework will not subvert progress much longer.
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