Lift Off for Commercial Drone Regulations

DronesDrones are everywhere. Technological innovations have created countless commercial opportunities for drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Until recently, however, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) prohibitions on drone commercialization have contrasted starkly with the soaring growth of drone-based businesses in Europe, Asia, and other parts of North America.

Now, depending on whom you ask, the FAA either has taken a significant step toward allowing commercial drones in the national airspace, or has proposed restrictive regulations that will stifle innovation and impede the deployment of drone-based services in the United States.

On February 15, 2015, after years of delay and the disclosure of leaked documents, the FAA released proposed regulations for commercial drone use. Following a 60-day public comment period and public meetings, the FAA expects to release final regulations that will become effective in 2017. Key points in the FAA’s proposed regulations include:

  •  Only daytime flights are permitted.
  • An operator can operate only one drone at a time.
  • Only line-of-sight flights are permitted; a drone operator must be able to see the drone unaided.
  • Drones must operate in a “sterile environment,” which means they cannot operate over any person not involved in their operation.
  • Drones must weigh no more than 55 lbs. and cannot carry external payloads.
  • Drones are limited to a maximum airspeed of 100 mph and a maximum altitude of 500 feet.
  • Drone operators are not required to obtain a private-pilot license, but must pass a written examination.
  • Commercial drones must display an FAA identification number, but airworthiness certification requirements are not required.

Although these proposed regulations are less onerous than many had feared, they still impose significant limitations on permitted commercial drone applications. For example, by forbidding external payloads and requiring line-of-sight flights, the proposed regulations would thwart the drone package-delivery services touted by Google and Amazon. Nonetheless, these regulations permit the commercial use of drones for agricultural crop inspections; research and development; educational/academic uses; power-line, pipeline, and antenna inspections; aiding search-and-rescue operations; bridge, other infrastructure and building inspections; aerial photography; and wildlife area evaluations. (Note that these proposed regulations do not affect recreational drones and model aircraft hobbyists, who remain subject to the longstanding provisions of Section 336 of Public Law 112-95.)

As the U.S. drone industry attempts to catch up with the rest of the world, the FAA’s proposed rules arguably represent an initial movement in the right direction. As FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has acknowledged, regulations governing drones must strike the appropriate balance between encouraging the emerging drone industry while maintaining aviation safety.

Concurrent with the FAA’s release of proposed drone regulations, the White House issued a memorandum discussing policies to address concerns about privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties in connection with the use of drones by federal agencies. The White House’s memorandum requires the development of a framework to address privacy, accountability, and transparency issues raised by commercial and private drone use.

Clearly, those interested in using drones for commercial applications should continue to monitor the regulatory process and stay abreast of the latest developments.