In February, the FAA issued the much anticipated proposed rules for drones titled "The Overview of Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking." Prior to the notice, there was a lot of speculation and more than a little apprehension about how the U.S. would handle drone usage. Short of plain outlawing unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace, the biggest concern was that the FAA would recommend that drone operators be considered pilots and have to attend a sort of flight school and be licensed. That didn’t happen. In fact, most of the fears that were circulating on the Internet proved completely unfounded, much to the collective relief of hobbyists and professionals alike.
Here are some of the highlights from the February notice:
UAS pilots will be considered "operators"; you won’t have to go to flight school to be able to use your drone.
• Every 24 months, operators will have to pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved facility—this seems to be similar to the way firearms are licensed in some states, where buyers must take a short written test every few years to prove rudimentary knowledge.
• Operators must be vetted by the TSA.
• Operators must be at least 17 years old.
• Operators must make the drone available for inspection upon request.
• Operators must report accidents within 10 days if they result in injury or property damage.
For the drone itself, the highlights from the notice are:
• The drone must weigh less than 55 pounds.
• "Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation."
• Visual line-of-sight must be maintained by the operator or a visual observer at all times.
• The drone can only be flown during daylight.
• The drone’s maximum altitude is to be 500 feet.
All of these requirements are for recreational usage, and some have suggested that this means any sort of commercial usage will still require a "Section 333 Exemption," which involves plenty of convoluted governmental forms and registrations. That’s not certain, by any means, however, and some experts are predicting that commercial requirements simply will echo the recreational rules.
In an interview with Pro Video Coalition’s Jeff Foster, noted drone attorney Peter Sachs said, "There is nothing wrong with requiring an appropriate level of aeronautical, meteorological and airspace knowledge. That makes sense. However, requiring a manned pilot license to fly a three-pound plastic drone commercially is like requiring a medical license to apply a Band-Aid. If the reported FAA proposed regulations are actually adopted, the United States is destined to remain a third-world nation with respect to drones." (See the article at www.provideocoalition.com/drone-law-update-faa.)
In the final analysis, we still have to wait and see what the actual regulations say. Following the February notice, there was a 60-day period for comments and input. Final rules and regulations had been targeted for later in 2015, but they could take a couple of years.
In the meantime, check out the Small UAV Coalition (www.smalluavcoalition.org). Their mission statement says, "The Small UAV Coalition advocates for law and policy changes to permit the operation of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) beyond the line-of-sight, with varying degrees of autonomy, for commercial, consumer, recreational and philanthropic purposes. Our members, including leading consumer and technology companies such as Airware, Amazon Prime Air, DJI, Google[x], GoPro, Parrot, and 3DR, believe that U.S. leadership in the research, development, and production of unmanned aerial vehicles will benefit consumers in all walks of life. We believe that, working together, we will be able to remove unnecessary policy or regulatory hurdles that impede small UAV development, sales, job creation, and services."
While there are plenty of accounts about threatening letters and phone calls from the FAA to commercial operators, the future is likely to be much more friendly for professional photographers and videographers…we hope.