On June 21, 2016 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released 14 C.F.R. Part 107, its long-awaited regulations governing the commercial operation of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS), or drones. These rules, which Congress ordered the FAA to issue back in 2012, represent a significant step in the FAA’s efforts to safely integrate sUAS into the National Airspace, and to allow commercial users to begin to unleash the significant economic, safety and environmental benefits that can be achieved through the commercial use of drones. According to the FAA, the new rules are expected to take effect in August 2016.
Part 107 applies to all sUAS operations with the exception of those recreational or hobby users who meet the requirements of Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Reform Act). Thus, Part 107 covers all operators who seek to use sUAS for commercial purposes, which the FAA broadly interprets to include all uses for business purposes, even if only flying to supplement an existing business and without charging fees to a third party. Until now, such operations were only allowed if the operator first secured an exemption from the FAA pursuant to Section 333 of the Reform Act.
Perhaps the most significant development in Part 107 relates to the piloting requirement. Previously, in order to operate a drone commercially one needed to have some level of traditional pilot certificate. No longer. Part 107 creates a new remote pilot-in-command position (RPIC). In order to act as an RPIC of an sUAS, an individual must merely pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center (this course may be taken on-line if the individual already holds a traditional pilot certificate) and obtain a remote pilot certificate with an sUAS rating. Prior to the issuance of the certificate, applicants will be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, as is the case with those individuals seeking a traditional pilot certificate. The FAA estimates the total cost to obtain the new certificate will be approximately $150. The RPIC otherwise need only be at least 16 years of age, fluent in English, and in a physical and mental condition that would not interfere with the safe operation of the sUAS.
Also significant, though consistent with the FAA’s prior handling of sUAS, is the lack of system, airframe and component part certification requirements for sUAS similar to those that exist for traditional manned aircraft. Instead, Part 107 only requires the RPIC to conduct a preflight check of the sUAS to assure that it is in a condition for safe flight.
Other highlights of Part 107 include the following:
- The unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs.
- Operations must be conducted within the visual line-of-sight (VLOS) of the RPIC and the person manipulating the controls of the sUAS (if someone other than the RPIC), or a visual observer. In that regard, the position of a visual observer is no longer required for all operations, but may be used, for example if the RPIC seeks to operate using a first-person view camera or similar technology (which technology previously was not permitted by the FAA).
- An individual may not act as an RPIC or visual observer for more than one unmanned aircraft at a time.
- Operations in Class G airspace are allowed without ATC permission; operations in Class B, C, D, and E airspace may be conducted with appropriate ATC permission.
- No operations over persons not directly participating in the operation unless they are under a covered structure or inside a stationary vehicle that can protect them from a falling small unmanned aircraft.
- Operations must be conducted during daylight, or during civil twilight (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset) if the sUAS is equipped with appropriate anti-collision lighting.
- Visibility must be a minimum of 3 miles from the control station.
- Operations cannot exceed a maximum groundspeed of 100 mph.
- Operations are limited to a maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level (AGL), or, if higher than 400 feet AGL, the unmanned aircraft must remain within 400 feet of a structure.
- Operations cannot be performed from a moving aircraft, and can only be performed from a moving vehicle if the operations are over a sparsely populated area.
- External load operations are allowed if the object being carried is securely attached and does not adversely affect the flight characteristics or controllability of the unmanned aircraft.
- Transportation of property for hire (i.e., package delivery) is permitted, but only under limited circumstances.
- The inclusion of a waiver provision that permits the FAA to waive many, but not all, of the restrictions set forth in Part 107 if the applicant can demonstrate that its proposed operations can safely be conducted under the terms of a certification of waiver.
While the new regulations do not permit all uses that some stakeholders were looking for, including operations beyond VLOS, night operations and full scale package delivery, the FAA is continuing to examine those issues, and it is anticipated Part 107 will be amended in the future as the technology that will safely permit such operations continues to develop. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Part 107 eliminates many significant barriers to commercial drone use, and is a major milestone for those looking to utilize sUAS for commercial purposes. To the extent you have questions regarding the new regulations and how they may impact your business, the Locke Lord Aviation and Defense Practice Group is ready to assist.