The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has cleared the way for routine use of small commercial drones in the Obama administration’s first major step toward integrating unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace.
The long-anticipated rule, which was finalized on Tuesday, applies to commercial drones weighing less than 55 pounds.
Currently, commercial operators must apply for a special exemption, known as a “section 333” waiver, in order to take flight, a process drone advocates have lamented is timely and costly.
Under the new rule, the waiver process will no longer be needed. Instead, operators must be at least 16 years old, register their drones online and pass an aviation knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will conduct background checks on all remote pilot applications.
Unmanned aircraft systems must stay in the operator’s visual line of sight and can fly up to 400 feet and 100 miles per hour, similar to the guidelines under section 333 waivers.
But to the welcome surprise of drone advocates, the new rule permits drones to fly during twilight hours, meaning 30 minutes before sunrise or 30 minutes after sunset, as long as the aircraft is equipped with anti-collision technology that provides lighting for three miles. Operators can also apply for nighttime flights under the rule.
The new regulation will take effect in 60 days, but officials emphasized that those with a section 333 exemption are entitled to keep their waiver until it expires.
“As this new technology continues to grow and develop, we want to make sure we’re striking the right balance between innovation and safety,” Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxBusiness, labor groups teaming in high-speed rail push Hillicon Valley: Uber, Lyft agree to take California labor win nationwide | Zoom to implement new security program along with FTC | Virgin Hyperloop completes first test ride with passengers Uber, Lyft eager to take California labor win nationwide MORE said during a call with reporters on Tuesday. “This is a major milestone.”
Drone advocates have generally applauded the rule, calling it a good first step while acknowledging that more work needs to be done.
“After years of work, DJI and other advocates for reasonable regulation are pleased that the FAA now has a basic set of rules for integrating commercial drone operations into the national airspace,” said Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs at drone manufacturer DJI. “There is more work ahead, and DJI thanks the FAA for encouraging the development of transformative aerial technology while ensuring the safety of those on the ground and in the air.”
But some transportation experts have blasted the regulation for being too restrictive, citing the visual line of sight requirement and limitations on nighttime operations.
"The FAA ignored calls for less onerous regulations, dismissing arguments that advances in technology would mitigate many of the agency’s stated concerns,” said Marc Scribner, research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Congress must step in if the United States is going to remain a leader in this very important emerging transportation technology.”
Others have expressed concern that the rule does not address privacy issues. An FAA fact sheet says the agency will provide users with recommended privacy guidelines as part of the registration process and through the FAA’s “B4UFly” mobile app.
Congress has been pushing the FAA for years to craft a framework that enables civilian drone users to safely operate in the airspace.
A Senate-passed FAA reauthorization bill contains a number of additional policy provisions regarding drones, but Congress now appears likely to pass another clean extension before the July 15 deadline.
“While this is a significant step, it reinforces the fact that we need a comprehensive FAA bill to keep FAA moving forward on integrating drones,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) “Without Congress giving the agency new milestones, we are at risk of stifling innovation and creating undue safety risks.”