FAA raises altitude limit for commercial drones

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Certain small commercial drones will be permitted to fly up to 400 feet under a new policy announced by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Tuesday. 

The new policy doubles the authorized altitude from 200 feet, except in restricted airspace and other areas where operation may be prohibited. 

The regulation applies to commercial and governmental unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operators with a Section 333 exemption and an aircraft that weighs less than 55 pounds. 

Pilots still need to register their drones and have the proper certification, as well as operate under daytime visual flight rules and keep the aircraft within their line of sight, the agency said. 

The FAA estimates that the move could reduce the workload for the Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) applications and even reduce the need for individual COAs by about 30 to 40 percent. 

“This is another milestone in our effort to change the traditional speed of government,” said Michael Huerta, FAA administrator, in a statement. “Expanding the authorized airspace for these operations means government and industry can carry out unmanned aircraft missions more quickly and with less red tape.” 

Groups supporting the use of unmanned aircrafts applauded FAA for raising the altitude limits for small commercial drones but said they wanted quicker action from the agency on future regulation.

“The FAA’s decision … provides greater flexibility to those receiving FAA exemptions and makes it easier for more commercial UAS operators to access the skies,” said Brian Wynne, president and chief executive officer of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “However, the FAA still needs to finalize its small UAS rule as quickly as possible to allow anyone who follows the rule to fly. The new blanket COA altitude remains lower than the operating ceiling of 500 feet proposed in the small UAS rule.” 

The agency was supposed to develop a broad plan for the “safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system” by September 2015. The FAA has made incremental steps toward that goal, such as by requiring all small drone users to register on an FAA website and by proposing a rule to allow the routine use of small commercial drones in the aviation system.

The final rule for commercial UAS that weigh less than 55 pounds is expected to be finalized this spring. The public comment period closed on April 24, 2015.