FAA Surprises Fliers with Release of Proposed Small-Drone Rules


Today, the FAA released its long-awaited proposed legislation for small drones, specifying a weight limit of 55 pounds and daytime-only, line-of sight use for the craft, among other requirements.

As quadcopters and other small easy-to-fly, self-navigating aircraft have grown with incredible popularity in the past couple years, the community using them has been waiting for the official set of rules for how they can be used. These official proposals, first reported by Greg McNeal at Forbes through an inadvertently posted document, will continue to be reviewed by the agency and undergo a public comment period before being made official.

They’re more lenient than many expected, but still create long-distance flight complications for commercial groups, like Amazon, who hope to use the craft for delivery purposes.

Overview of Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

Operational Limitations

• Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs. (25 kg).
• Visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only; the unmanned aircraft must remain within VLOS of the operator or visual observer.
• At all times the small unmanned aircraft must remain close enough to the operator for the operator to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.
• Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation.
• Daylight-only operations (official sunrise to official sunset, local time).
• Must yield right-of-way to other aircraft, manned or unmanned.
• May use visual observer (VO) but not required.
• First-person view camera cannot satisfy “see-and-avoid” requirement but can be used as long as requirement is satisfied in other ways.
• Maximum airspeed of 100 mph (87 knots).
• Maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level.
• Minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from control station.
• No operations are allowed in Class A (18,000 feet & above) airspace.
• Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are allowed with the required ATC permission.
• Operations in Class G airspace are allowed without ATC permission
• No person may act as an operator or VO for more than one unmanned aircraft operation at one time.
• No careless or reckless operations.
• Requires preflight inspection by the operator.
• A person may not operate a small unmanned aircraft if he or she knows or has reason to know of any physical or mental condition that would interfere with the safe operation of a small UAS.
• Proposes a microUAS option that would allow operations in Class G airspace, over people not involved in the operation, provided the operator certifies he or she has the requisite aeronautical knowledge to perform the operation.

Operator Certification and Responsibilities

• Pilots of a small UAS would be considered “operators”
• Operators would be required to:
– Pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.
– Be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration.
– Obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating (like existing pilot airman certificates, never expires).
– Pass a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test every 24 months.
– Be at least 17 years old.
– Make available to the FAA, upon request, the small UAS for inspection or testing, and any associated documents/records required to be kept under the proposed rule.
– Report an accident to the FAA within 10 days of any operation that results in injury or property damage.
– Conduct a preflight inspection, to include specific aircraft and control station systems checks, to ensure the small UAS is safe for operation.

Aircraft Requirements
• FAA airworthiness certification not required. However, operator must maintain a small UAS in condition for safe operation and prior to flight must inspect the UAS to ensure that it is in a condition for safe operation. Aircraft Registration required (same requirements that apply to all other aircraft).
• Aircraft markings required (same requirements that apply to all other aircraft). If aircraft is too small to display markings in standard size, then the aircraft simply needs to display markings in the largest practicable manner.

Model Aircraft
• Proposed rule would not apply to model aircraft that satisfy all of the criteria specified in Section 336 of Public Law 112-95.
• The proposed rule would codify the FAA’s enforcement authority in part 101 by prohibiting model aircraft operators from endangering the safety of the NAS.

2 thoughts on “FAA Surprises Fliers with Release of Proposed Small-Drone Rules

    1. I hope not. That wouldn’t be right. There is no chance of manned and unmanned aircraft involvement RC flying below tree level, or inside.

    2. Model Aircraft
      • Proposed rule would not apply to model aircraft that satisfy all of the criteria specified in Section 336 of Public Law 112-95.

  1. These rules as written seem to apply to UAV like quadrocopters sold for recreational use by children and adults. These rules might be needed for vehicles between to ranges of weight instead of being inclusive of all vehicles under 55 lbs. The rules regarding certifications and such seems onerous for recreational users. The VLOS requirements are also short sighted and do not take into account that this technology is changing rapidly and a significant number of vehicles can or will have the ability to operate autonomously; even down the the smaller fit in the hand type.

  2. Another point I would like to make is the although rules may be necessary to define and communicate – the reality is that the rules will only apply to those who follow the law – the people most likely to violate these rules are by definition criminals and so these rules place heavy handed requirements and costs onto already assumed to be; law abiding citizens. These rules will in the end protect no one from surveillance or from any criminal activities.

  3. Sooooo, everyone who wants to operate any kind of model aircraft will now be required to be vetted by the TSA, obtain an operator certificate, and take an aeronautical knowledge test every 2 years? That’s pretty onerous.

    I also still don’t like their example of using a UAS with a camera to inspect crops as commercial use. It seems rather silly that a farmer could stick a camera on a tall pole attached to a remote control land-based rover with no issues, but as soon as you take away the pole, it falls under FAA commercial restrictions.

    1. Actually, no, most hobby fliers won’t need a screening/certificate. The Academy of Model Aeronautics (the “nationwide community-based organization”) got Congress to exempt hobbyists; see the law below. If you are not getting income from flying, and you follow the rules below, you won’t have to be licensed. (I think you might need a certification and a spotter to fly first person view.) This is a lot looser than we modelers thought it would be.

      As for the pole and rover example, a rover can’t fly away, say, up into restricted airspace or the White House lawn. 55 lb at 100mph is some serious kinetic energy (roughly 3/4 the muzzle energy of a .50 Browning machine gun round). I think the certification/inspection requirement is fair for commercial use. I am not in love with all of the rule but it gives clarity to what is now a Wild West atmosphere.

      PUBLIC LAW 112–95—FEB. 14, 2012
      (a) IN GENERAL
      .—Notwithstanding any other provision of law relating to the incorporation of unmanned aircraft systems into Federal Aviation Administration plans and policies, including this subtitle, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft, if—
      (1) the aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use;
      (2) the aircraft is operated in accordance with a community- based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization;
      (3) the aircraft is limited to not more than 55 pounds unless otherwise certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization;
      (4) the aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft; and
      (5) when flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport) with prior notice of the operation (model aircraft operators flying from a permanent location within 5 miles of an airport should establish a mutually-agreed upon operating procedure with the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport).

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Mike Senese is the Executive Editor of Make: magazine. He is also a TV host, starring in various engineering and science shows for Discovery Channel, including Punkin Chunkin, How Stuff Works, and Catch It Keep It.

An avid maker, Mike spends his spare time tinkering with electronics, doing amateur woodworking, and attempting to cook the perfect pizza.

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