On June 21, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released long-awaited new rules for commercial, non-hobbyist small unmanned aircraft (sUAS) operations. The FAA’s press release about the new rules in part 107 of the FAA regulations is available here. FAA’s three-page fact sheet about the new regulations can be found at this link, and a 53-page advisory circular, which provides additional guidance, can be found here. The fact sheet and advisory circular are helpful resources, but by no means exhaustive, as the complete rules and commentary from the FAA fill 624 pages.

These final rules govern the commercial use of small (less than 55- pound) UAS. Many of our clients, who are understandably excited about the prospects of integrating drones into their businesses under a more defined regulatory regime, should become familiar with these detailed regulations before taking to the sky. That is also true for clients who may currently be operating sUAS pursuant to a Section 333 Waiver that they obtained from FAA before these new rules were finalized. The new rules address how those Section 333 Waivers apply under the new regulatory regime, and also how to obtain waivers from many of the new operational requirements.

The rules issued June 21 resolve many pressing issues that businesses posed during the notice-and-comment period, including, but by no means limited to, the following practical questions directly relevant to many actual and potential commercial uses of sUAS:

Does the person manipulating the controls of the sUAS need to be a licensed pilot?

  • No. A person operating the controls of a small UAS must either hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who does hold a remote pilot certificate (the “remote pilot in command”). This change is expected to greatly reduce the costs of using sUAS in commercial operations.

Is a visual observer (VO) required to assist the operator in maintaining a visual line-of-sight (VLOS)?

  • No, a VO is optional. The remote pilot in command may choose to use a VO to supplement situational awareness and help maintain VLOS. This change should also reduce the costs of using sUAS.

Must a sUAS still remain within VLOS of its operator?

  • Yes, unless a waiver is obtained.

Can VLOS requirements be met by the use of binoculars or other visual aids?

  • No. Vision aids may be used only momentarily to enhance situational awareness, such as to avoid flying over persons or conflicting with other aircraft.

Can sUAS operate over people not participating in the operation?

  • No, unless they are inside a covered structure or covered stationary vehicle.

Can sUAS operate at night?

  • No, unless a waiver is obtained. And operations conducted during civil twilight require anti-collision lights.

Does a first-person view (FPV) camera on a sUAS satisfy the “see-and-avoid” requirement?

  • No. FPV cameras may be used, but do not (in and of themselves) satisfy this requirement. Although some commentators suggested that FPV technology has advanced to the point that operators should be able to use FPV for “see-and-avoid” purposes, FAA concluded that it did not have sufficient data at this time to determine that a technology can safely satisfy the see-and-avoid requirement of the new rules.

What is the maximum groundspeed and altitude of operations?

  • 100 mph and 400 feet AGL (above ground level) or above a structure.

In what classes of airspace are operations permitted?

  • Class G without the approval of air traffic control (ATC), or Classes B, C, D and E with the approval of ATC.

Can sUAS deliver cargo?

  • Yes. Transportation of non-hazardous property for compensation or hire is allowed, provided that the aircraft, payload, and cargo weigh less than 55 pounds total; the flight is conducted within VLOS; and the flight occurs within certain specified geographical restrictions.

Can sUAS drop items while in flight?

  • The rule maintains the prohibition on dropping objects from a sUAS if doing so would create a hazard to persons or property.

What qualifications must sUAS operators possess?

  • As noted above, a person operating the controls of a small UAS must either hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who does hold a remote pilot certificate (the “remote pilot in command”).

How can those qualifications be obtained?

  • By passing a written initial aeronautical knowledge test and subsequent recurrent aeronautical knowledge tests; no specific training course, pilot training or pilot ground school is required.

Is an FAA airworthiness certification required?

  • No, but the operator must conduct a preflight check and ensure that the sUAS is in a condition that can be operated safely.

Must accidents be reported to the FAA? 

  • Yes if they involve serious injury, loss of consciousness or more than $500 in property damage other than damage to the sUAS.

Must sUAS operators carry special insurance?

  • No, but insurance is recommended. FAA stated that it lacks jurisdiction to mandate the purchase of liability insurance.

How do the new rules address privacy concerns?

  • The FAA recognized that sUAS flights may pose risks to individual privacy but stated that it does not regulate privacy issues.

As the foregoing list shows, FAA tried to address many of the practical issues faced by businesses hoping to integrate sUAS into their day-to-day operations. These rules are subject to change and it is expected that the FAA will issue a different set of rules governing micro UAS (i.e., sUAS weighing less than 4.4 pounds). Whether you are a realtor planning to use sUAS to photograph your listed properties; a utility hoping to integrate sUAS in critical infrastructure inspections; a farmer anticipating the use of sUAS to inspect your fields; or some other business that can benefit from the use of sUAS, it is recommended that you stay informed about the FAA’s rules and thoroughly understand how they apply to you and your business.