Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules for commercial drone use went into effect August 29, 2016. The drone rules require drone operators to strictly follow all guidelines spelled out in a 624 page rulebook. The FAA hopes the long anticipated regulations will achieve increased safety for all operators, pilots, and all people who are subject to being injured by these drones if not properly operated. Prior to the 2016 update to drone rules, commercial drone users had to apply to FAA for each use.
Drones fill the skies and the store shelves in a rise of popularity. Sales rang in at between 700,000 to 1 million drones during the brief holiday season of 2015 alone. It’s expected that in the first three years of commercial drone use about 70,000 jobs and approximately $13.6 billion will positively impact the economy from drones being allowed to soar through the air.
What Do New Drone Rules Require?
Drone operators must be age 16 years or older. Operators must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test to obtain a remote pilot certificate. One pre certification condition requires a background check by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Drones must fly at all times within the line of sight of the operator, or by someone who is able to maintain contact with the operator. Flight is restricted to daylight hours with few exceptions. Operators wishing to operate a drone out of their visual line of sight need to apply to receive a special waiver for the use.
The rules apply to all drones over .55 pounds and up to 55 pounds. Those without the certification may fly a drone only if they are under the actual supervision of someone who is certified.
Drone Height Restrictions
The FAA has also developed rules regarding flight height. A flight height of 400 feet or less must be maintained by the operator, unless the drone comes within 400 hundred feet of a tall building, in which case the operator has the exception to increase flight height in the air in order to clear the structure. These rules were developed with the help and influence from the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which has serious concerns that if drones fly higher than 400 feet and out of sight of operators, there is an increased risk of collision with aircraft.
Drone Complaints and Hazards
FAA regulators report numerous complaints from pilots describing dangerous experiences with drone sightings in or near a flight path. Between late 2014 and January 2016 1,346 drone sightings were reported either in or uncomfortably close to airport airspace. These close sightings pose a great potential danger because aircraft can be extremely vulnerable in flight, particularly during takeoff and landing. Pilots fear a direct aircraft-drone collision, the worst case scenario being a direct hit into an aircraft engine, which could be disastrous.
Serious critics of the FAA rulemaking process included the Academy of Model Aeronautics, or AMA. The AMA concluded that the reports mentioned above consisted only of near-misses, but no actual aircraft collisions. The group believes pilots are overstating actual risks of danger.
Commercial Drone Deliveries
Commercial use for deliveries is not yet allowed. The FAA wants to create an automated program for delivery use, but it is in the early stages of research. Until then, there is no guarantee that deliveries can be safely completed, especially in heavily populated areas, so they are strictly prohibited for now until further FAA research. FAA research includes a determination of resolving problems when and if delivery drones lose connection with the operator, and developing warning signals to alert pilots when drones are near.
Ten Key Points In New Drone Rules
Highlights of the 2016 FAA drone regulations summarized above cover the major rules now in effect. Here are the top ten points covered in the rules:
- Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds.
- Drone must remain in visual line of sight of operator.
- May not operate over any persons not directly participating in drone flight.
- Daylight use only. If anti-collision lighting employed, use extended to 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset.
- Must yield right of way to other aircraft.
- Maximum altitude: 400 feet.
- Maximum ground speed: 100 mph.
- Preflight inspection required by remote pilot in command.
- Operation from moving vehicle prohibited unless in sparsely populated area.
- Certificate of waiver of rules available on case-by-case basis. Safety must be assured.
Reckless Drone Operation
Unfortunately, operators have still been caught operating drones dangerously and recklessly and many of those operators have been fined by the FAA. The FAA foresees that it will be difficult to enforce these rules with the number of drones expected to be operating in the sky, since it’s impossible to monitor all of them closely. As the above rules withstand the test of time, amendments are seen as likely. Technology changes are also seen as requiring rule modification.
Many states have already created laws that govern drones, bringing criminal punishment for those who break the law. The FAA is attempting to claim control of all airspace, but in the meantime, the FAA regulations, as well as state laws must be complied with during all drone use.
Attorney Andrew D. Myers is a civil litigation attorney with offices in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and has taught seminars including participation on the panel for “Drone Law: Look Out for the Soaring Legal Issues”, MCLE, Boston, MA, 2/25/2016.