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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently finalized national, uniform rules for commercial drone flight.  Effective  August 29, 2016, the new FAA “Part 107” rules will regulate the operation of “small unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS), or small “drones,” pursuant to Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Public Law 112-95).

The final rules are expected to foster growth in the burgeoning commercial drone industry because they ease regulatory restrictions.  In fact, the White House estimates that the industry will generate $82 billion for the U.S. economy by 2025.

The maximum altitude for unmanned flight is 400 feet under the final rules, but the sky is the limit when it comes to the potential uses of small commercial drones.  Drones may monitor, inspect, and photograph large areas and hard-to-reach places in real time.

Among other commercial drone uses, farmers may monitor crops, media outlets may gather news, real estate agents may take aerial photos, safety regulators may inspect cell phone towers, bridges, and other infrastructure, and scientists may monitor research projects in the environment.

Prior to the adoption of the final rules, commercial drone operators had to navigate bureaucratic red tape to obtain special “Section 333” regulatory permission to operate drones.  The final rules, by contrast, allow generalized access to small commercial drones without special approval.

Still, the final FAA rules placed heavy restrictions on small commercial drone flight due to concerns over spying, privacy, and public safety.  The list of restrictions are available here.

Some highlights:

  • Operational Rules
    • UAS subject to the Part 107 regulation must weigh less than 55 pounds 
    • Only flights within the visual line-of-sight of the operators are allowed 
    • UAS may not operate: over anyone who is not directly participating in the flight; under a covered structure; or inside a covered stationary vehicle 
    • UAS flights must occur during daylight or twilight hours 
    • Maximum groundspeed for UAS is 100mph (87 knots) 
  • Pilot Requirements
    • A person operating a UAS must either hold a remote pilot certificate with a small unmanned aircraft system rating, or be under the direct supervision of a person who holds a remote pilot certificate (remote pilot in command)
    • To qualify for a remote pilot airman certificate, a person must: (1) either (a) pass an FAA aeronautical knowledge exam or (b) hold a Part 61 pilot certificate other than a student pilot, complete a flight review within the last 24 months, and complete a UAS online training course; (2) be vetted by the TSA; and (3) be at least 16 years old.
    • A remote pilot in command must (1) make the UAS and records available to the FAA; (2) report certain accidents to the FAA within 10 days of occurrence; (3) conduct a pre-flight inspection; and (4) ensure that the UAS device complies with existing regulations.

For now, several commercial drone applications are still up in the air.  Amazon’s widely publicized efforts to develop sky-based package delivery, for example, have yet to take off.

But with time, package delivery by air and other commercial drone applications may become a reality as technology emerges and interested parties lobby for more lenient regulations.

Stay tuned as regulatory guidance develops and innovators develop the ideas that will shape the commercial drone industry in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

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