WASHINGTON – New drone rules from the Federal Aviation Administration limit most small commercial drone operations to daylight hours and require operators to get certified every two years.
The rules, made public Tuesday, mark the FAA's first attempt at a comprehensive plan to ensure the popular remote-controlled aircraft can safely share the skies with commercial craft.
The FAA has already granted special permission for more than 5,300 commercial drone uses while it developed the final rules. Tuesday's action opens the floodgates to tens of thousands more because drone operators won't need to seek case-by-case approval.
The FAA's 624-page rulebook allows commercial drones weighing up to 55 pounds to fly during daylight hours and lower than 400 feet in the air, or higher if within 400 feet of a taller building or tower. The aircraft must remain within sight of the operator or an observer who is in communication with the operator. The operators must be at least 16 years old and pass an aeronautics test every 24 months for a certificate and a background check by the Transportation Security Administration.
The rules govern commercial flights, such as for aerial photography or utilities inspection.
“We wanted to make sure we’re striking the right balance between innovation and safety," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who called the rule a "major milestone."
Drones can operate in the evening only if the aircraft carries lights visible for three miles, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. Drone operators who want to conduct night flights, flights beyond what the operator can see or flights over people not associated with the operation would need demonstrate specific safety measures and seek a waiver, Huerta said.
"Our focus is to make this as streamlined as possible," he said.
The final rule still has a 60-day comment period and details remain to be worked out, such as the written test for commercial operators.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, projects 70,000 jobs and $13.6 billion in economic impact will be created in the U.S. within three years of drones being allowed to fully share the skies. Amazon, Google and Walmart are testing drones for deliveries.
Huerta said research is continuing for automated programming over congested areas that would be required for deliveries, but he did not set a time frame for approving those sorts of flights.
"The department is working cooperatively with industry," Huerta said. "We certainly see the benefit of this. What we need to see is that it can be done safely."
Hobbyists have similar flight guidelines, but Congress exempted them from these formal rules. By June 8, FAA registered 464,591 drone operators who can fly one or more drones. Another 10,054 people registered one drone apiece for special permission for non-hobbyist operations such as for police and fire departments.
An estimated 700,000 to 1 million drones were sold during the 2015 holiday season, according to trade groups.
Airline and general-aviation pilots worry that a collision with a drone could bring down an aircraft. Pilots and others reported 1,346 drone sightings from November 2014 through January 2016. The reports to the FAA included sightings from airliners approaching or departing airports at thousands of feet in the air.
But the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a group representing 188,000 hobbyists, questions the credibility of the reports. The group found only 46 reports of “near misses” and no collisions.
"The final rule will be highly beneficial to the industry overall, as it resolves many uncertainties in the law and creates an improved regulatory environment," said Dave Mathewson, the academy's executive director. "We look forward to seeing widespread commercial and civil operations of unmanned aircraft take flight."
The FAA first unveiled its proposed commercial rules in February 2015, after Congress ordered the FAA to fully integrate the skies with drones by September 2015. Drone manufacturers and operators have complained about the slow pace of rule-making, while acknowledging the importance of keeping flights safe.
As part of the integration, the FAA continues to research issues such as how to have the aircraft signal to each other to avoid collisions, and how to deal with drones that lose connection with their remote operators to avoid crashes. Future rules will cover larger drones.
“We’re still in the early days,” Jason Miller, deputy director of the National Economic Council.
Adam Lisberg, spokesman for DJI, one of the largest drone manufacturers, called the rulebook a milestone for the industry.
The rules show that FAA thinks drones, which are useful for utility inspections, construction surveys, agricultural monitoring, university research and search-and-rescue, can safely share the skies with passenger planes, Lisberg said.
“We take this as the FAA endorsing all of the benefits that drones can bring and that they can be safely integrated with the proper precautions,” Lisberg said. “The FAA is saying drones are good for America and there are plenty of good reasons to see more of them in the air.”
Industry advocates are expected to push the FAA to allow nighttime flights and flights farther than the operator can see.
“This industry will no longer be identified by exceptions, exemptions and the art of the possible,” said Gregory Walden, a former FAA chief counsel who is counsel to the Small UAV Coalition. “Rather, it will now be ‘open for business.’”
Despite the new rules, conflict remains between the federal government and the states. The FAA contends its rules govern everything that flies. Pending legislation approved by the U.S. Senate would place all authority for drone rules in federal hands, which many state officials oppose.
While the FAA rule-making process lagged, states adopted dozens of local laws that restrict drones, such as prohibiting drones with weapons and barring flights over private property. At least 29 states have adopted laws governing drones and 41 states have debated legislation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Russ Klingaman, an aviation lawyer at Hinshaw & Culbertson in Milwaukee and a private pilot, compared the drone rules to the initial flights of the Wright brothers a century ago – both for the historic opportunities and the dangers.
As the skies become more crowded, he worried about how to avoid collisions above a traffic accident or a fire if police and news drones with sophisticated equipment are joined by hobbyist drones that don’t communicate. Technology and operator education will both improve, he said.
“There will be huge safety concerns and there will be mishaps,” Klingaman said. “The future is really wide open.”