Current regulations[edit | edit source]

In 2007, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a policy notice stating that "no person may operate a UAS in the National Airspace without specific authority."[1] Therefore, currently all drone operators who do not fall within the recreational use exemption discussed below must apply directly to the FAA for permission to fly.[2]

Public and civil operators[edit | edit source]

Drones operated by federal, state, or local agencies must obtain a certificate of authorization or waiver (COA) from the FAA.[3] After receiving COA applications, the FAA conducts a comprehensive operational and technical review of the drone and can place limits on its operation in order to ensure its safe use in airspace.[4] In response to a directive in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA), the FAA recently streamlined the process for obtaining COAs, making it easier to apply on their website.[5] It also employs expedited procedures allowing grants for temporary COAs if needed for time-sensitive missions.[6]

Civil operators, or private commercial operators, must receive a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category in order to operate.[7] These certificates have been issued on a limited basis for flight tests, demonstrations, and training. Presently, there is no other method of obtaining FAA approval to fly drones for commercial purposes. It appears these restrictions will be loosened in the coming years, since the FAA has been instructed to issue a rulemaking that will lead to the phased-in integration of civilian unmanned aircraft into national airspace.[8]

Recreational users[edit | edit source]

The FAA encourages recreational users of model aircraft, which certain types of drones could fall under, to follow a 1981 advisory circular.[9] Under the circular, users are instructed to fly a sufficient distance from populated areas and away from noise-sensitive areas like parks, schools, hospitals, or churches. Additionally, users should not fly in the vicinity of full-scale aircraft or more than 400 feet above the surface. When flying within three miles of an airport, users should notify the air traffic control tower, airport operator, or flight service station. Compliance with these guidelines is voluntary.

Future regulations[edit | edit source]

The FMRA instructs the FAA to integrate civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace by the end of FY2015 and implement new standards for public drone operators. This law included provisions describing the comprehensive plan and rulemaking the agency must create to address different aspects of integrating civil drones, restricting the FAA's ability to regulate "model aircraft," and requiring the creation of drone test sites.

Civil operators[edit | edit source]

The statute instructs the FAA to create a "comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace"[10] and submit the plan to Congress within one year of enactment.[11] The statute contains a non-exhaustive list of elements that the plan must address, including predictions on how future rulemaking will address the certification process for drones; drone sense and avoid capabilities; and establishing operator or pilot standards, including a licensing and registration system.[12]

The plan must also include a timeline for a phased-in approach to integration and ways to ensure the safe operation of civil drones with publicly operated drones in the airspace.[13] The FAA has not yet submitted this comprehensive plan to Congress. FMRA also directs the FAA to promulgate a series of rules, including rules governing the civil operation of small drones in the national airspace and rules implementing the comprehensive plan described above.[14] Additionally, the FAA must update its 2007 policy statement that established the current scheme of drone authorizations.[15]

Public operators[edit | edit source]

As noted above, the FAA has already implemented a streamlined process for public operators to obtain COAs.[16] In addition to this streamlining, the FMRA instructs the FAA to "develop and implement operations and certification requirements for the operation of public unmanned aircraft systems in the national airspace."[17] Similar to the provisions governing civil users, these standards must be in place by the end of 2015.

Recreational users[edit | edit source]

In the FMRA, the FAA is prohibited from promulgating rules regarding certain kinds of model aircraft flown for hobby or recreational use.[18] This prohibition applies if the model aircraft is less than 55 pounds, does not interfere with any manned aircraft, and is flown in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines.[19] Additionally, the aircraft must be flown within the line of sight of the operator and be used solely for hobby or recreational purposes.[20] If flown within five miles of an airport, the operator of the model aircraft must notify both the airport operator and air traffic control tower.[21] While the FAA is prohibited from writing rules or regulations governing these aircraft, it is not prohibited from pursuing enforcement actions "against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system."[22]

Test ranges[edit | edit source]

As part of its efforts to integrate drones into the national airspace, the FMRA also directed the FAA to establish six test ranges that will serve as integration pilot projects.[23] As part of the test range program, the FAA must designate airspace for the operation of both manned and unmanned flights, develop certification and air traffic standards for drones at the test ranges, and coordinate with both NASA and the Department of Defense during development. The test ranges should address both civil and public drone operations.[24]

In February 2013, the FAA published a notice in the Federal Register announcing the process for selection of the sites.[25] In its words, "[t]he overall purpose of this test site program is to develop a body of data and operational experiences to inform integration and the safe operation of these aircraft in the National Airspace System."[26] As directed in the statute, factors for site selection include geographic and climactic diversity and a consideration of the location of the ground infrastructure needed to support the sites.[27] Additionally, in the notice the FAA announced privacy requirements that will be applicable to operations at test sites.

The FAA received 50 applications spread across 37 states and is in the process of making its test range site selections.[28]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. FAA, "Unmanned Aircraft Operations in the National Airspace System," 72 Fed. Reg. 6689 (Feb. 13, 2007).
  2. See id.
  3. Id.
  4. See generally FAA, "Unmanned Aircraft Systems" (full-text).
  5. See FMRA §334(a) (instructing the issuance of "guidance regarding the operation of public unmanned aircraft systems to . . . expedite the issuance of a certificate of authorization process. . . ."); see also "Certificates of Authorization or Waiver (COA)" (full-text).
  6. "FAA makes progress with UAS integration" (full-text).
  7. 72 Fed. Reg. 6689; see 14 C.F.R. §§21.191, 21.193 (experimental certificates generally); 14 C.F.R. §91.319 (operating limitations on experimental certificate aircraft).
  8. FMRA §332(2).
  9. See 72 Fed. Reg. 6689; Advisory Circular 91-57, "Model Aircraft Operating Standards" (June 1981) (full-text).
  10. FMRA §332(a)(1).
  11. Id. §332(a)(4).
  12. Id. §332(a)(2).
  13. Id.
  14. Id. §332(b).
  15. Id. §332(b)(3).
  16. Id. §§334(a), (c).
  17. Id. §334(b).
  18. Id. §336.
  19. Id. §336(a).
  20. Id. §336(c).
  21. Id. §336(a)(5).
  22. Id. §336(b).
  23. Id. §332(c).
  24. Id. §332(c)(2).
  25. FAA, "Unmanned Aircraft System Test Site Program," 78 Fed. Reg. 12259 (Feb. 22, 2013).
  26. Id.
  27. Id.; see FMRA §332(c)(3).
  28. FAA, "UAS Test Site Map" (full-text).

Source[edit | edit source]

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