Non-Pilots Can Fly Drones Under Proposed Rules

FAA releases UAS NPRM
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WASHINGTON — Drones would not have to be flown by licensed pilots under rules proposed Sunday by the Federal Aviation Administration. The proposal is counter to exemptions granted last year to several TV and movie production companies requiring unmanned aerial systems to be operated by a licensed pilot. The FAA said the requirement would pose an “unnecessary burden for many small UAS operations.”

“A person typically obtains a private or commercial pilot certificate by learning how to operate a manned aircraft,” the FAA said in its 195-page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. “Much of that knowledge would not be applicable to small UAS operations because a small UAS is operated differently than a manned aircraft.”

A commercial drone operator would be required to pass an FAA-approved aeronautics test, obtain approval from the Transportation and Security Administration, get FAA-drone certified and be at least 17 years old. She or he would have to be recertified every two years.

“This is the most hopeful I’ve been about the prospects for drone journalism in quite some time,” said Matt Waite of the University of Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab. “There’s very little you couldn’t do journalism-wise within these rules…. Under this regulatory framework, every newsroom will have drones and people certified to fly them…. I had, before today, been despairing that people were going to have to get a pilot’s license and there was going to be scads of additional gear you were going to have to own.”

Under the proposal, the following rules would apply to small unmanned aircraft for commercial use:

Weigh no more than 55 pounds.
Maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground.
Maximum airspeed of 100 mph (87 knots).
Unaided (except for glasses or contacts) visual line-of-sight by the operator.
Flight during daylight only.
No flight over people not involved in the operation.
Minimum weather visibility of three miles from control station.
Preflight inspection.
Limited to no flight in restricted airspace.
No airworthiness certificate is required.
Operators must avoid all other aircraft, manned or otherwise.
Accidents resulting in property damage or injury must be reported.

The rules allow for “visual observers” to help keep an eye on a drone, but the operator must still maintain “the capability” of line-of-sight, which rules out “daisy-chain” operation with multiple visual observers. The NPRM said line-of-sight is necessary since Air Traffic Control Collision Avoidance Systems are “currently too large and heavy to be used in small UAS operations.

“Until this equipment is miniaturized to the extent necessary to make it viable for use in small UAS operations, existing technology does not appear to provide a way to resolve the ‘see-and-avoid’ problem with small UAS operations without maintaining human visual contact with the small unmanned aircraft during flight,” the NPRM states.

With regard to air worthiness certification, the document notes that it’s usually a three to five year process, and that “small UAS would be outdated by the time it completed the process.” It said lightweight ATC Collision Control transponders may be developed within that period of time.

The FAA already has established six drone test sites to help them evaluate performance based on geographic and climatic diversity. All were operational as of last August. Data-gathering will continue for five years. Additionally, the FAA is “in the process of selecting a new UAS Center of Excellence” to serve as a recourse for its research activities.

Privacy is not addressed in the FAA’s NPRM, but the agency said it would participate in “the multi-stakeholder engagement process led by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration” on privacy. States are taking matters into their own hands, however. California, for example, prohibits drone operators from taking pictures of people in areas that would otherwise require the photographer to trespass.

The demand for using drones for commercial applications has exploded as camera and transmission gear has become sufficiently compact and agile. FAA rules currently prohibit commercial drone operation “due to potential hazards they could pose to other aircraft and the civilian population.” However, the FAA said it recognized the potential safety benefits of commercial drone deployment.

“Specifically, with respect to the potential safety benefits from substituting small unmanned aircraft for aerial photography, the FAA reviewed 17 aerial aviation photography accidents and incidents that occurred between 2005 and 2009. Of these accidents, the FAA determined that a small UAS could have substituted for the manned operation in two cases,” the NPRM said. “If the use of a small UAS replaces a dangerous non-UAS operation and saves one human life, that alone would result in benefits outweighing the costs of this proposed rule.”

The NPRM will be open for comment for a period of 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. Attorneys with Thompson Coburn LLP in Washington expect “a high volume of comments given the wide-reaching impact of these regulations on commercial UAS activity in the United States.”

The FAA recently issued a status report indicating it received 33,000 comments on its June 25, 2014 “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft,” they noted.

“This status report provides us with just a hint of what could be a massive undertaking that is ahead of the FAA when comments to the NPRM start rolling in,” the attorneys said in a letter to clients.

The FAA is under Congressional directive to pass commercial drone usage rules by September of this year.

“It’s not going to happen. It’s already late,” said Thompson Coburn’s Robert Kamensky. “They’ve been working on this since 2005… It’s going to be a couple of years. Just on the ‘Interpretation’ item, they had to hire a company to help them out on comments. This is a much bigger deal.”

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