Unmanned Aircraft Proposed Rules: Commercial Operations Permissible, but Limitations will Remain

The FAA’s February 23rd Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) regarding Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) would add a new section to Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) governing general operating rules for aircraft. Presently FAR Parts 91 through 105 set forth the air traffic and general operating rules for flights carried on in United States airspace. The February 23rd (NPRM) would add a new section — FAR Part 107 — governing unmanned aircraft flights.

My read on the proposed FAR Part 107 is that commercial operations would be permissible, so long as the operation does not involve carrying cargo for hire. Thus aerial surveying, photography, and so forth, would be acceptable, so long as they meet the requirements in the new part. External cargo carrying operations, such as what has been mentioned by companies like Amazon, would still be restricted to certificated “air carriers,” which need to meet the standards of the more stringent FAR Part for commercial air carriers, such as FAR Parts 121 (scheduled air carrier service) or 135 (charter air carriers).

Operations will still be limited by the requirement that the operator maintain visual line of sight of the aircraft, and that flights remain within 500 feet of the ground. That will effectively limit scope of the permissible flights. Moreover, flights cannot occur without meeting visual flight rules minima, which are currently three miles of visibility. That may be a bit restrictive — one can imagine a desire to conduct aerial photography over a confined area on a cloudy day, in which one could very safely operate a UAS when there is not the three miles of visibility that would be required when flying a small airplane like a Cessna under visual flight rules. That may be a bit excessive, especially for operators in the Pacific Northwest.

As for the qualifications of the operator, the proposed rule would not require that the operator hold a certificate such as a private pilot’s license. They would, however, require that the pilot have undergone an initial knowledge test. The operator will also need to be 17 years old.

Overall, the proposed Part 107 appears to be a step in the right direction. It gives owners and operators of UAS equipment some level of certainty as to what they can and cannot do. Currently, owners and potential operators must apply for an exemption request — a time-consuming process. The proposed Part 107 will help by setting the initial boundaries for UAS operations while ensuring safety of flight.

A copy of the NPRM as published in the federal register can be found at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-02-23/pdf/2015-03544.pdf


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I am an attorney in Seattle, Washington, with practice areas in civil litigation, aviation law, and business law.

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