We have been getting a lot of questions from clients about the current state of play of the federal laws and regulations that apply to unmanned aerial vehicles (i.e., drones). Contrary to popular belief, there are FAA rules that apply to drones; they are the same rules that apply to 747s and Cessnas.
The practical answer when trying not to get on the FAA’s bad side is to be smart. When in doubt, play it safe, pack it in and take your drone home for the day.
Here is a brief summary of what you need to think about when deploying your drone fleet.
Current FAA Position/Regulatory Framework
The FAA currently takes the position that existing commercial aircraft regulations apply to unmanned aviation systems (i.e., drones) used for commercial purposes.
Further, they believe that drones cannot comply with the existing regulations, as they require an onboard pilot to be able to see and avoid obstacles. That means that the FAA believes businesses are foreclosed from using drones without a specific exemption.
That being said, it typically does not bring enforcement actions against drone operators unless they are flying in a manner that is unsafe, although it still often notifies drone operators of the rules. Other law enforcement agencies, such as homeland security, sometimes get into the notification game.
While drones are not permitted under the current regulatory framework, drone operators may apply for a Section 333 (of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012) Exemption from the general commercial aircraft regulations in order to operate a drone in the national airspace. The exemption petition process is fairly straight-forward, but time consuming. The process is detailed here.
Drone operators also need a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) which informs FAA air traffic control of the proposed drone operations.
The exemption petition must include:
- A broad description of proposed activities, including a description of the location in which operations will occur (e.g., whether the area is closed to the public and the population density).
- Explanation of why the operations minimize risk to other aircraft and people and property on the ground.
- Flight experience/training/qualifications of operator.
- Drone inspection procedures to ensure safe flight.
- The radio frequency (RF) spectrum to be used to operate the drone.
- Explanation of lack of national security risks.
Drone operators need to be licensed pilots under the existing framework, so any exemption request for an operator that is not a commercial pilot should detail why the person’s operation of the drone does not increase risk to the public. Prior exemptions granted have required pilot certification.
Under the current regulatory framework, the FAA considers the planned operating environments and requires certain conditions and limitations to assure the safe operation of the vehicle in the national airspace. For example, the FAA requires that all drone operations have both a pilot and a visual observer, and the pilot must have at least an FAA Private Pilot Certificate and a current medical certificate. Additionally, among numerous other restrictions, exemptions issued to date have required drones to remain below 400 feet and within the visual line of sight of the operator at all times during operations.
As of February 3, 2015, the FAA has granted 24 exemptions from 342 requests for exemptions. The rate of requests is exploding. The FAA received 128 additional requests between January 6 and February 3, 2015.
The exemption approval process typically takes four to six months, but given the recent increase in applications, the timelines could be expected to vary from this. The exemption lasts two years, but can be renewed.
New Proposed Drone Regulations
The FAA recognizes that the exemption process is not a viable long-term solution (and Congress has directed the FAA to find alternative ways to integrate drones into the national airspace). To that end, the FAA published proposed regulations specific to drones on February 15, 2015 that would do away with the requirement for an exemption in certain cases. We have our own thoughts on these regulations, but for now, we are telling it like it is.
The drone operator would not be required to hold a private pilot or commercial pilot license, and a visual observer would not be required. Obtaining a private or commercial pilot license is an expensive process, requiring 40 and 250 flight hours respectively. The FAA believes knowledge gained in obtaining these licenses is not completely applicable to drone operations. Nevertheless, a drone operator will be required to pass a flight knowledge test, be vetted by TSA and obtain a special drone pilot license.
The proposed rules would still require the operator to maintain a visual line of sight with the drone at all times. That means that autonomous flight would not be permitted (at least not yet, without a specific Section 333 Exemption). The FAA estimates that the cost of compliance under the new rules will be roughly $6,000.
Operation in certain zones of the US airspace would be permitted as long as these rules were followed. Other zones would require prior FAA/air traffic approval and some zones (like above 18,000 feet or over Area 51) would be completely off limits.
The rules are not effective until they are finalized, which could take over a year to occur. There is a sixty-day comment period for these proposed rules. After that period lapses, the FAA may hold a hearing and will review the comments and make revisions as needed to the rules. It can then issue another version of proposed rules or issue the final regulations. We are happy to support the NYC Drone Film Festival on March 7, 2015. Come say hello.