In Spring 2015, the FAA released a set of proposed rules and regulations to govern the commercial use of drones in the United States. The rules are confusing; they are still changing and will likely be constantly changing as drone use expands and evolves. Here are ten tips for staying in line with some of the changing FAA regulations for commercial use.
Commercial versus personal use
One of the biggest points of contention in drone regulation is how and when a drone can be used for commercial purposes. Currently, you cannot use a drone for commercial reasons without acquiring special approval directly from the FAA. There is, however, some gray area in defining commercial use. To provide clarity for what is considered commercial versus personal use, the FAA released an interpretive document (FAA-2014-0396) which outlined some specific use case comparisons:
Flying your drone to take pictures for personal use is considered hobby use. A realtor using a drone to take pictures of a property they have listed, are in process of listing, or intend to list, is considered commercial use.
Flying your drone at local model aircraft club is considered hobby use. Flying your drone for demonstrating, teaching, or performing in exchange for money is considered commercial use.
Using a drone to move a box from one point to another without any compensation is considered hobby use. Delivering packages for a fee is a commercial use.
Viewing a field of crops to determine density, water needs, and so on is a hobby use as long as the crops are being used for personal enjoyment or consumption. Using your drone to view your crops that you are growing for sale is considered a commercial use.
Getting approval for commercial use
To apply for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization, you must go to the FAA website and complete an online application. If you are awarded and exemption, you still must adhere to strict guidelines which include:
Total unmanned aircraft weight must not exceed 55 lbs.
Flight altitudes are limited to 200 feet or lower.
Flights must be conducted during the day.
The unmanned aircraft must remain in line of site at all times.
The unmanned aircraft must be at least 5 miles away from an airport with a functioning air traffic control tower.
Your unmanned aircraft must registered with the FAA.
If your usage falls outside of these parameters, you can apply for a special Certificate of Waiver or Authorization.
Getting approval for public use
Government agencies can use a drone for governmental purposes if the drone is owned by the government agency or is on exclusive lease for a period of no less than 90 days, and it is being operated for crew training or demonstration purposes only.
For any other use, the government agency is required to secure a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization from the FAA. Once the application is reviewed and conditionally approved, the FAA will work with the agency to determine a geographic boundary and parameters for the usage of the drone.
Gaining experimental certification
Recently, the FAA rolled out a special certification for organizations that are working on developing unmanned aircraft and need to be able to train ground crew, test technology, and perform demonstrations. This special certification can be acquired by applying directly to the FAA. The FAA reviews each request on a case-by-case basis and then upon approval of the request, the FAA works closely with the applicant to clearly define usage restrictions, including geography, type of aircraft, manner in which it will be used, and so on.
Capturing the news with a drone
Using the drone to capture the news, while it doesn’t directly generate revenue, is deemed to be a commercial use for the drone. Now there are legal ways that news organizations are working around this restriction, and with good reason.
News organizations can enlist the services of a third party with no official affiliation with news agency to capture footage for them assuming the third party has FAA clearance. This footage could then be used for broadcast and would not be in violation of the FAA rules and regulations. Also, if drone footage is captured without the intent of selling it to a news agency, the footage can be serviced and broadcast. Seems a bit ridiculous but hey, the story isn’t going to tell itself, right?
Knowing the proposed commercial drone rules
The FAA previously has not allowed any sort of commercial uses for unmanned aerial vehicles. However, the new proposed regulations have loosened this stance but it still provides tight restrictions on how a drone can be used for business purposes. Following is a list of some of the changes:
The unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs. (25 kg).
The unmanned aircraft must remain within visual line of sight of the operator or visual observer (spotter) unaided by any device other than contact lenses or glasses.
The unmanned aircraft cannot be flown over people or vehicles
Usage of the unmanned aircraft is limited to daylight-only operations (official sunrise to official sunset, local time).
Must yield right-of-way to other aircraft, manned or unmanned.
Maximum airspeed of 100 mph (87 knots).
Maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level.
Minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from control station.
No operations are allowed in Class A (18,000 feet and above) airspace.
Flight above 500 feet requires special permission from air traffic control.
No person may act as an operator or VO for more than one unmanned aircraft operation at one time.
The unmanned aircraft must undergo a preflight inspection by the operator.
A person may not operate a small unmanned aircraft if he or she knows or has reason to know of any physical or mental condition that would interfere with the safe operation of a small UAS.
Knowing the proposed rules for commercial drone operators
Not only did the FAA propose new regulations for Drones, but also for drone operators. Following is a list of these items:
A commercial drone operator (operator) must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.
Operators must be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration. This is a security background check to ensure that you are not on any sort of watch list.
Operator must obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating (like existing pilot airman certificates, never expires).
Operator must pass a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test every 24 months.
Operator must be at least 17 years old.
Operator must make available to the FAA, upon request, the small UAS for inspection or testing, and any associated documents/records required to be kept under the proposed rule. Check out Appendix A for a sample flight log that can be used to track all of your flight time.
Operator must report an accident to the FAA within 10 days of any operation that results in injury or property damage.
Operator must conduct a preflight inspection, to include specific aircraft and control station systems checks, to ensure the small UAS is safe for operation.
Following drone privacy laws
EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) petitioned the FAA to establish drone privacy rules prior to releasing revised commercial regulations. Now EPIC has taken the battle one step further by suing the FAA stating that the FAA failed to implement privacy rules that were mandated by the FAA.
That doesn’t mean that there are no rules whatsoever governing how and what you can do with your drone. Each state has begun hearing and passing laws to protect individual rights of privacy from other individuals including officials and law enforcement. To stay on top of drone legislation, go to the American Civil Liberties Union website.
Understanding the proposed regulations for micro drones
The FAA is considering drafting a MicroUAS class of regulations for drones that fit certain criteria. Proposed regulations include to govern micro drones include:
The micro drone must weigh less than 2 kilograms (4.4 lbs)
The micro drone must be made out of fragile material that can break on impact
The micro drone must not move faster than 30 nautical miles
The micro drone must not exceed 400 feet above the ground
The micro drone must only be flown within the operators sight and the operator must control the plane by sight and not through automated controls.
The micro drone must remain 5 miles away from any airport.
Helping with FAA enforcement
Currently the FAA is not staffed for policing drone usage to ensure adherence to federal regulations. Therefore, they rely heavily on civilians and local law enforcement to keep an eye out. The FAA suggests that “first responders” take the following steps to help them enforce the law:
Locate witnesses and gather statements on what they witnessed.
Gather evidence like video footage or photos.
Document how the drone was used and whether or not it was within a restricted area.
Contact a regional FAA operational office.
If the FAA receives notice of reckless use of a drone, they may attempt to contact the operator by sending an educational letter. If the letter is not sent from the FAA legal department, you don’t have to sweat too hard. Make sure you read the letter and glean what you can. If the letter is sent from the FAA legal affairs, you may want to pay close attention to see if there is any sort of action being taken. Not responding to these letters can lead to automatic judgments like fines.