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DOT and FAA Finalize Rules for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems

As drone technology becomes more sophisticated and accessible, the use of unmanned aerial systems (“UAS”) for non-hobby commercial applications will become more frequent. According to industry estimates, the use of UAS in furtherance of commercial interests could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next ten years. Recognizing the need for new laws, the Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration have imposed a series of new laws governing the UAS operations for non-hobby use.

The new rules, which take effect in late August 2016, apply to all unmanned aircraft drones weighing less than 55 pounds that are conducting non-hobbyist operations. These rules will apply to a wide variety of applications, including, but not limited to, aerial photography, transportation of payloads, cargos and property for hire, bridge, building and utility inspection, and precision agriculture.

In summary, the new rules require pilots to keep an unmanned aircraft within visual line of sight. Operations are permitted during daylight and twilight if the drone is equipped with anti-collision lights. The new regulations also address height and speed restrictions and other operational limits, such as prohibiting flights over unprotected people on the ground who are not directly participating in the UAS operation.

Additionally, the person flying the drone must be at least 16 years old and have a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating, or be directly supervised by someone with such a certificate. To qualify for a remote pilot certificate, an individual must either pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center or have an existing non-student Part 61 pilot certificate. The TSA will conduct a security background check of all remote pilot applications prior to issuance of a certificate.

Operators are responsible for ensuring a drone is safe before flying, but the FAA is not presently requiring small UAS to comply with current agency airworthiness standards or aircraft certification. Instead, the remote pilot will simply have to perform a preflight visual and operational check of the small UAS to ensure that safety-pertinent systems are functioning property.  This includes checking the communications link between the control station and the UAS.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has noted that the new rules take a “a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy…new technology with the FAA’s mission to protect public safety.” Significantly, Mr. Huerta noted that this is just the FAA’s first step. “We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.” This should come as no surprise considering that we are undoubtedly entering a new era in aviation. The potential for unmanned aircraft will ultimately make it safer and easier to do certain jobs and gather information. However, due to the complexity of our airspace, it is necessary to strike a careful balance between support for innovation, while also maintaining high standards of safety.

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