Draft FAA Regulations for Drones

On February 15th, 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released long-awaited regulations on the use of drones in the United States. The draft rules lay out some fairly common sense guidelines for the commercial use of drones and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and they also set standards for pilot certification. Overall, the rules would allow a wide range of activities for drones under 55 pounds and the certification of aircraft and pilots is not very burdensome. However, all drones would have to be operated via visual line of sight (VLOS) only, so this precludes first person view (FPV) flying without an additional spotter. How will these regulations affect quadcopters and other UAS? Read on for our full analysis of the proposed FAA regulations!

FAA Logo with Text

Details on Proposed FAA Regulations

The FAA took action yesterday through a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) titled “Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” The whole 195 page notice can be viewed here: FAA Drone Regulations (FAA-2015-0150). For a shorter read, the FAA put together a concise summary of the main points within the proposed rules as well: FAA Drone Regulations Summary.

While we won’t go over every aspect of the proposed regulations, there are a few areas that warrant special attention:

Operational Limitations:

  • Visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only; the unmanned aircraft must remain within VLOS of the operator or visual observer
    • This provision will likely prove to be contentious, as it means that the range of UAS is fairly limited. No autonomous Amazon delivery drones making their way to way points miles apart, no epic FPV flying around a mountain, and no situation where the pilot can’t easily see the aircraft at all times (without the use of any binoculars/telescopes). There are certainly good reasons for the FAA to include this provision – the likelihood of collisions increases dramatically when the aircraft cannot be seen by the operator. But it really discounts any technological “see and avoid” innovations and precludes some of the more promising UAV applications. I imagine that this aspect of the proposed rules will encounter a lot of push back from folks looking to do major commercial applications.
  • Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operations
    • This would seem to preclude any overhead filming of events, concerts, urban environments, etc. unless everyone was somehow categorized as “directly involved” in the operations, which would be a tough argument to make. Again, the FAA has valid concerns about safety (no one wants to see a 50 pound drone crash down on people who are innocent bystanders) but it will likely get some push back as it rules out a lot of applications.
  • Maximum airspeed of 100mph (87 knots), maximum  altitude of 500 feet above ground level
    • The airspeed provision will likely be non-controversial, and limiting the altitude to 500 feet is also within the realm of reasonableness. However, there are many consumer level drones and quadcopters that can go much higher than 500 feet. The enhanced perspective from higher altitudes may encourage some folks to push that boundary, or at least challenge the FAA in the rule making process.
  • Proposes a microUAS [4.4lbs/2.2kg] option that would allow operations in Class G airspace [generally below 1,200 feet and not near airports] over people not involved in the operations
    • This section is one of the most interesting, as the FAA is acknowledging that not all drones are created equal and that there needs to be different regulations for different size and weight UAS. By tentatively allowing microUAS to fly above non-operators, the FAA may avoid some of the backlash of not allowing overhead flights by the larger crafts. And allowing microUAS operators to self-certify instead of going through a knowledge based test would minimize the burden of operating smaller craft. However, there are some notable restrictions in the microUAS regulations: no flying above 400 feet, no quicker than 30 knots, no FPV flying at all, no autonomous operations, and finally all microUAS must be made of “frangible materials” that break on impact and thus pose less of a danger. The FAA says that most “fixed-wing” small UAS would meet this criteria, though I imagine they are talking primarily about foam and balsa gliders, rather than quadcopters. Its hard to imagine a DJI Phantom being categorized as “frangible”, though perhaps this could open up a new market for easily broken and disposable quadcopters!

Operator Certification and Responsibilities

  • Operators would have to: pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved center; be vetted by TSA; obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate; and be at least 17 years old.
    • These requirements seem fairly straightforward, and not particularly burdensome given that they are for commercial use. It will cost a bit of money and time to gain the certification and pass the test, but definitely a smart idea to require at least a base line of knowledge.

Aircraft Requirements

  • FAA airworthiness certification not required; aircraft certification required
    • This seems to make sense to me; the FAA doesn’t need to (and couldn’t conceivably) approve of every UAS out there, but it does want a record of what you’re flying. Operators also have to maintain markings on their aircraft in a practicable manner, and maintain their UAS to ensure safe operations.

Model Aircraft

  • Proposed rule would not apply to model aircraft that satisfy all of the criteria specified  in Section 336 of Public Law 112-95
    • Essentially, this means that none of the above regulations matter if you’re flying a UAS solely for recreational or hobbyist usage, and done in a safe and responsible manner. You can read the exact wording of the legislation here: PL 112-95, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 but suffice it to say that as long as your aircraft is under 55 pounds, you are flying it safely according to generally accepted flying standards, and you’re operating outside of protected airspace, as a hobbyist you are free to operate without the above regulations applying.

Summary and Application to Quadcopters

The FAA had a very tough task to come up with regulations on this emerging technology. There will always be a tension between those favoring enhanced regulation and government oversight, and those seeking limited restrictions. The connotations of the word “drone” bring up strong feelings in many members of the public, even when their conceptions of what a drone is may be far removed from the actuality of a five pound quadcopter or glider. But by laying out this initial set of regulations, the FAA has put forth a fairly reasonable set of rules that UAS operators can consider, and comment on, in the coming months.

At first glance, the rules seem to strike a fair balance between the need to ensure safety and the need to embrace technological innovations that have already been adopted by the public and industry. Some measures will be contentious, such as not allowing operations beyond visual line of sight, or prohibiting flying at night, but the rules are a solid start.

For quadcopters specifically, there isn’t anything particularly troubling in the proposed regulations. Since the regulations exempt all hobby and recreational uses of UAS, most quadcopter operators won’t really have to worry about these regulations at all! They only apply when individuals want to use quadcopters for commercial purposes.

Of course, many operators may indeed want to use their quadcopter platforms for commercial ventures, especially those with a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ or a DJI Inspire 1. The inclusion of a separate category for microUAS is a great development, as most quadcopters would fit into the sub-4.4 pound category (though notably not the Inspire 1).  However, I highly doubt that the FAA would say that a Phantom is frangible, so would it even qualify in that category? And should you really not be allowed to fly microUAS autonomously?

These questions will be difficult to answer and some clarification and tough decisions by the FAA will be necessary before final regulations are promulgated. Input from the public is critical in this process too, so if you have thoughts to contribute please do so through: FAA Operations and Certifications of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems on Regulations.gov.

Also, please be sure to let us know what you think about the proposed regulations (and our analysis) in the comments below!