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So You’re Thinking About Using a Drone for Your Business?

Hearing about laws regulating “drones” in U.S. airspace may call to mind images from science fiction movies, but the reality is that drones, also known as “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS), and the factors surrounding their regulation are beginning to become relevant in modern aviation and business discussions. In fact, a drone was recently found to have crashed on the grounds of the White House without initially being detected by the Secret Service – here’s a link to the story.

Controversy over drone regulation began to take the spotlight in March 2014 when an administrative law judge vacated a $10,000 fine levied against Raphael Pirker by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for flying his unmanned aircraft in a “reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another” in violation of 91.13 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. The judge’s rationale was that Pirker’s drone did not meet the definition of an “aircraft” and therefore the FAA had no jurisdiction to assess a civil penalty.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) later reversed the judge’s decision, saying that the drone did indeed meet the definition of being an aircraft, and that Pirker had flown it in a reckless manner, specifically in terms of how high it was flown, how low it was flown, how close it came to striking an individual on the ground, and how close it had flown to a heliport where it may have interfered with the operation of an aircraft transporting people.

New proposed regulations for UAS operation

Nearly a year later in February 2015, the FAA announced proposed regulations that would allow for the routine use of drones for conducting non-recreational operations in the aviation system. Unfortunately for online retailer Amazon, the proposed rules make it nearly impossible to use drones as a product delivery system.

Amazon had initially expressed interest in using drones to deliver its products to customers, but the proposed rules state that drones must be kept within the line-of-sight of operators, undermining the effectiveness of drones as product delivery devices. Other commercial operations such as filming aerial footage of properties by real estate agents or monitoring crops by farmers would still be possible under the proposed regulations. Although the FAA has approved Amazon to train a crew to fly its experimental drones, the test is to be conducted in daylight only, within 400 feet of the ground, and within sight of an operator who has a traditional pilot’s license.

In addition to the line-of-sight requirement, the regulations would require:

  • Small UAS operators must always see and avoid manned aircraft, and must give manned aircraft the right-of-way if there is a risk of collision.
  • The operator must discontinue flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people, or property.
  • A small UAS operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions, and the location of people to lessen risks if they lose control of the UAS.
  • A small UAS may not fly over people except those directly involved with the flight.
  • Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph.
  • Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions

The UAS operator would need to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate, and would have to pass FAA knowledge tests every 24 months to maintain certification. They would not need any further private pilot certifications.

It will be interesting to see what regulations are ultimately enacted, and how those regulations will affect the use of drones and their impact in the aviation field and in the economy as a whole.

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