Back in 2015, the FAA promulgated various rules and regulations regarding the use of drones, which included a requirement to register all such aircraft. The FAA has subsequently finalized its rule for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which took effect on August 29, 2016. The new rule offers safety regulations and limitations for unmanned drones weighing less than 55 pounds that conduct “non-hobbyist operations.”

This is particularly relevant because the past year has seen the rapid rise of unmanned aircraft, and various companies are experimenting with the use of drones in their commercial ventures.

This post provides a quick overview of the new rules and regulations relating to drones for commercial and recreational use. Keep an eye on this space for updates and further insight as FAA continues to implement the new rule.

Operational Requirements

The FAA’s final rule implements safety regulations for non-recreational use of unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds. Users who want to fly for commercial or other business uses must now comply with the following:

  • Weight limit of 55 pounds (inclusive of cargo)
  • Yield to other aircraft
  • Maximum limits on speed and altitude
  • Hazardous materials prohibited
  • Must remain within visual sight of the pilot – pilot cannot be mobile
  • No operation over individuals not directly participating in the flight
  • Only operated in daylight or twilight (if the drone has anti-collision lighting)
  • Flight may not cross state boundaries (with certain exceptions)

Pilot Certification

Drone operators must have a remote pilot airman certificate or be under the direct supervision of one who holds that certificate. To qualify for the certificate, a person must be at least 16 years old and pass a knowledge test and other training requirements.

FAA has issued a summary of the guidelines that is helpful.

Waiver Process

FAA also plans to implement a waiver process for some restrictions if the operator proves the proposed flight will be conducted safely under a waiver. The new FAA rule also allows drones to be legally used for commercial purposes without an approval process if the drones are operated by specified certified pilots in compliance with safety requirements. FAA expects to roll out a waiver and approval process in the coming months.

Drones for Recreational Use

The FAA’s new rule does not apply to drones flown as a hobby or for recreational purposes weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds, so long as the drone is registered and flown in accordance with the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. Hobby or recreational drones weighing less than 0.55 pounds need not be registered. The FAA has interpreted “model aircraft” to exclude both commercial operations and flights “in furtherance of a business, or incidental to a person’s business.”

Congress expressly limits FAA’s authority over model aircraft so long as:

  • The aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use;
  • The aircraft is operated in accordance within specified safety guidelines;
  • The aircraft is no more than 55 pounds, unless otherwise certified;
  • When operated, the aircraft does not interfere with manned aircraft; and
  • When flown within 5 miles of an airport, prior notice is given to the airport operator and air control tower.