My post last Friday (Making Money with Drone-Based Businesses) was long on enthusiasm and short on facts. Thanks, as always, to our fantastic commentariat for helping me get up to speed.  The story of drone entrepreneurship is, in fact, emerging, but the technology and the willing entrepreneurs are mostly in place, already, and the action, for now, is about the law and how it’s changing.

As things stand, to legally operate an unmanned aircraft in US national airspace for other than recreational purposes, or at altitudes above 400 feet, requires a special certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA does not issue these for commercial use, though it has issued some dozens for experimental purposes and some hundreds to public agencies like the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

This lawsuit from the Electronic Frontier Foundation over FAA disclosure of certificate-holder information provides a dense but well-researched summary of the law as of January 2012.

The FAA Fact Sheet on Unmanned Aircraft Systems makes their position clear:

The introduction of UASs into the NAS is challenging for the FAA and the aviation community.  UAS proponents have a growing interest in expediting access to the NAS.  There is an increase in the number and scope of UAS flights in an already busy NAS.

The design of many UASs makes them difficult to see and adequate “detect, sense and avoid” technology is years away.  Decisions being made about UAS airworthiness and operational requirements must fully address safety implications of UASs flying in the same airspace as manned aircraft, and perhaps more importantly, aircraft with passengers.

Finally, this piece from the AP’s Joan Lowy gives a good sense of the outlook:

Congress has told the FAA that the agency must allow civilian and military drones to fly in civilian airspace by September 2015. This spring, the FAA is set to take a first step by proposing rules that would allow limited commercial use of small drones for the first time.

[Thanks, Adam, Nikoli, Scott, Andrew, Chris Kean, Alan Dove, and Daniel Kim!]

Pressure builds for civilian drone flights at home

Sean Michael Ragan

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c’t – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

  • Adam

    He Sean,

    Nice follow up. The day of your first post I was researching the rules of regarding flying UAVs and model planes. Like you, I was not aware that you could not fly a drone commercially; which I found interesting because I know I’ve seen “behind the scenes” on some movies where they used a UAV to film scenes.

    Let’s hope that the rules can change, there is a whole industry waiting to be born.

  • Nikoli

    I understand the safety concerns of RC crafts vs. full size crafts and collisions/etc. But above 400 feet isn’t the concern of most commercial RC aerial photographers/videographers. Those shooting for real estate, crop/plant monitoring, construction planning, etc. etc. aren’t going near that height.

    Thanks for the follow-up.

  • Chris

    “As things stand, to legally operate an unmanned aircraft in US national airspace, at altitudes above 400 feet, for other than recreational purposes, requires a special certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration.”

    This statement should be written as follows: “As things stand, to legally operate an unmanned aircraft in US national airspace for other than recreational purposes, or at altitudes above 400 feet, require a special certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration.”

    Your statement makes people believe that if they are flying under 400 feet, they are allowed to use unmanned aircraft (hobby planes/helicopters) for commercial purposes, this is incorrect as they are not. If you fly above 400 feet, for either recreational or commercial purposes, you require a special FAA certificate. This is what model rocket and experimental weather balloon groups do.

    • Sean Ragan

      Oops. Thanks for catching this. Fixed.

      • Chris

        Keep rockin’ on!

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  • Adam

    The FAA rules say “400 feet AGL” AGL meaning Above Ground Level. Wikipedia defines AGL thusly:

    “In aviation and atmospheric sciences, an above ground level (AGL) altitude is an altitude measured with respect to the underlying ground surface. This is as opposed to altitude/elevation above mean sea level (AMSL), or (in broadcast engineering) height above average terrain (HAAT). In other words, these expressions (AGL, AMSL, or HAAT) indicate where the “zero level” or “reference altitude” is located.”

    So, it’s 400 feet measured from the ground your standing on (as I understand it)… I don’t think that the FAA would consider a building the ground.

  • rocketguy1701

    The FAA very definitely doesn’t consider the top of a building as a “ground level”. For manned aircraft they are, however, considered under proximity rules, i.e. stay 500Ft from any object, structure or person in the course of flight. (By object they don’t mean the ground, but things like cars).

  • rocketguy1701

    Should have emphasized the above is manned, not drone aircraft rules, just to clarify the whole AGL thing. The other altitude commonly used is MSL, or mean sea level, aka pressure altitude, which presuming you’ve correctly set your baro value on the altimeter should mean that you read the same altitude as everybody else. AGL requires GPS and a terrain DB, commonly found on the better glass panels. Or google earth.