First Thoughts on FAA’s Small Unmanned Aircraft System Proposed Rules

At 10am on Sunday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced its draft rules to govern small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The announcement is not particularly surprising, especially given the fact that FAA apparently accidentally uploaded a key rulemaking document for a few minutes over the weekend. Thankfully, the Internet never forgets.

Small UAS (up to 55 pounds) operators will now have a formal certification process. Previously, the FAA was issuing case-specific exemptions for commercial operators under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the same law in which Congress ordered the agency to integrate UAS into the National Airspace System by September 2015. Under the newly proposed framework, small UAS operators may be certified if a number of conditions are met, including:

  • Operations are within 500 feet above ground level;
  • Operators maintain line-of-site monitoring at all times;
  • Operators pass a written FAA-certified aeronautical knowledge test;
  • The UAS will not be carrying external-loads (i.e., no package delivery);
  • Operations occur during daylight hours; and
  • All operations are manually directed in accordance with FAA’s see-and-avoid requirements (i.e., no automated operations).

I will likely have more thoughts in the coming days on what this all means, but below are a few initial thoughts.

First, the certification for UAS weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms), given the line-of-sight restrictions, etc., seems excessive. The Swiss have similar restrictions, but require no pilot certification for operating UAS up to 30 kilograms.

Second, if the FAA is going to develop a special UAS pilot certification process, they should also have developed another path for automated UAS certification—perhaps greatly restricted, but still permissible. The blanket exclusion of commercial automated operation also seems excessive. In the leaked document, the FAA’s introduction touts the advancement to automated UAS: “Due to technological advances, UAS have changed from remotely piloted vehicles with limited capabilities to semi and fully autonomous vehicles that could expand and enable new potential commercial applications.” Yet, these operations are prohibited.

Third, the devil will be in the details. What role will the Section 333 exemptions play in the future now that FAA is creating a formalized certification option for some small UAS? Perhaps Sec. 333 exemptions will be available to commercial automated UAS operators until the publication of the final rule. Unlike external-load operations, which the FAA argues it does not have the authority to safely authorize under Sec. 333, there do not appear to be such legal hurdles facing automated operations beyond FAA’s interpretation of the see-and-avoid and line-of-sight requirements. Automated operations would be very limited, but maybe still permissible in some settings.

Reaction from the UAS industry over the next few days will be interesting. I suspect many, particularly companies such as Amazon that wish to push the technological envelope with package delivery, will not be satisfied.

Update: Here is the draft notice of proposed rulemaking. The initial comment period will close 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. Amazon is not pleased.