FAA finalizes first-time rules on small commercial drones

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Long awaited U.S. regulations allowing the use of commercial small drones were published by the Federal Aviation Administration Tuesday, banning the remotely-piloted aircraft from flying at altitudes over 400 feet, within five miles of airports and at nighttime.

Flights over populated areas or beyond the pilot’s line of sight will require a special waiver, and operators must have an airman’s license, or be supervised by someone with one.

The rules set a framework specifically for non-recreational small unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS — popularly called drones — which include any craft less than 55 pounds. The new rules will go into effect in 60 days in every state, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said.

“As this new type of technology has grown and developed, we want to make sure we are striking the right balance between innovation and changes — that we are protecting manned aircrafts and folks on the ground,” Foxx said in a press call.

Drones will also need to obey a 100 mph speed-limit, and require anti-collision lights to fly during twilight hours.

Using a small drone for commercial purposes should be as easy as registering one for recreational use, an FAA spokesperson said. The FAA will no longer require operators to apply for a specific authorization waiver to allow them to sell photos taken from the aircraft, or do aerial surveys, for example.

“This is a major milestone for safely integrating unmanned aircrafts into our nation’s airspace,” Foxx said. “Unmanned aircrafts truly have the potential to change both the way we fly and they offer many potential benefits to society.”

Today’s publication is long overdue, as the agency has been working on the framework since the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reauthorization Act, and was supposed to finish the regulations by the end of 2015.

The final ruling is very similar to last year’s proposed rules. One major change is the height limit, which was at 500 feet in last year’s draft. The FAA changed it so drones can avoid manned aircrafts which fly at that height.

[Read more: FAA pledges more guidance, faster pace in drone rule-making]

Pilots will be able to apply for waivers to certain rules, like the line-of-sight restriction, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. They can use an online portal which he promised to be “streamlined” and did “not envision be very burdensome.”

The aviation community welcomed the new rules, citing them as an important framework to kickstart the ways drones can impact all parts of life.

“Accelerating civil and commercial UAS operations will not only help businesses harness tremendous potential of UAS, it will also help unlock the economic impact and job creation potential of the technology,” President and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Brian Wynne said in a statement. 

“Once UAS are fully integrated into the national airspace and become more widely used, the industry will continue to grow as a job creator and generate significant economic impact.”

But Information Technology and Innovation Foundation Vice President Daniel Castro worried that imposing different rules on commercial and recreational users unnecessarily limits innovation and competition.

“Going forward, the FAA should continue to be firmly committed to bolstering U.S. competitiveness in UAS and to promoting commercial UAS activity,” he said in a statement. “To achieve this, it should commit to rapidly developing rules that allow more advanced operations, such as flights over individuals, by embracing a flexible, risk-based approach to safety concerns.”

Contact the reporter on this story via email: Jeremy.Snow@FedScoop.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyM_Snow. Sign up for the Daily Scoop — all the federal IT news you need in your inbox every morning — here: fdscp.com/sign-me-on.

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Drones / UAS, emerging technology, Tech
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