FAA releases proposed rule for commercial use of small drones

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 15, 2015 - The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today released its long-awaited proposal for regulations governing the commercial use of small, unmanned aircraft, or drones, including in agriculture.

The proposed rules apply to small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) under 55 pounds and would limit their use to daylight and to visual line-of-sight operations, a requirement that agricultural stakeholders have lobbied against, citing the need for drones to operate over large wheat and corn fields and ranches. The FAA is asking for comments on whether the rules should permit operations beyond line of sight, and if so, what the appropriate limits should be.

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The proposal also would require the person flying a small UAS to be 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test every two years and obtain a UAS operator certificate from the FAA. An operator would not need any further private pilot certification.

“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a news release. “We want to maintain today's outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”

The proposal says flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 miles per hour. In addition, operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace, and not fly over people, except those directly involved in the flight.

The public will be able to comment on the proposed regulation for 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register. Separate from this proposal, the FAA intends to hold public meetings to discuss innovation and opportunities at the six test sites it has set up to explore UAS potential. These meetings will be announced in a future Federal Register notice.

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The FAA is also asking for comment on whether the final rule should include an additional, more flexible framework for “micro” UAS under 4.4 pounds. The proposed regulations announced today would not apply to model aircraft.

Until the FAA implements a final rule, the current unmanned aircraft rules remain in effect. They require an FAA exemption for individuals or businesses who want to use small unmanned aircraft in commercial operations. To date the agency has granted 28 such exemptions, including a handful for “precision agriculture.”

The White House today also issued a Presidential Memorandum concerning transparency, accountability, and privacy, civil rights and civil liberties protections for the federal government's use of UAS in the national airspace system. The memo calls for the “initiation of a multi-stakeholder engagement process to develop a framework for privacy, accountability, and transparency issues concerning commercial and private UAS use.”

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