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Monday, February 16, 2015

FAA Releases Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Drone Regulations

So reports the Washington Post:
Thousands of businesses could receive clearance to fly drones two years from now under proposed rules that the Federal Aviation Administrationunveiled Sunday, a landmark step that will make automated flight more commonplace in the nation’s skies. 
Meanwhile, the White House on Sunday issued presidential directive that will require federal agencies for the first time to publicly disclose where they fly drones in the United States and what they do with the torrents of data collected from aerial surveillance. 
Together, the FAA regulations and the White House order provide some basic rules of the sky that will govern who can fly drones in the United States and under what conditions, while attempting to prevent aviation disasters and unrestrained government surveillance.
The notice of proposed rulemaking is here. A list summarizing the proposals can be found here. These rules would include requirements that drones not be operated recklessly, that drones be operated within the line of sight of the person controlling the drone, and that people who operate drones obtain licenses.

Notably, the second to last proposal is that "Proposed rule would not apply to model aircraft that satisfy all of the criteria specified in Section 336 of Public Law 112-95." Here is the text of that section:

(a) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law relating to the incorporation of unmanned aircraft systems into Federal Aviation Administration plans and policies, including this subtitle, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft, if—

(1) the aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use;
(2) the aircraft is operated in accordance with a community based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization;
(3) the aircraft is limited to not more than 55 pounds unless otherwise certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization;
(4) the aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft; and
(5) when flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport) with prior notice of the operation (model aircraft operators flying from a permanent location within 5 miles of an airport should establish a mutually-agreed upon operating procedure with the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport)).

(b) STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION.—Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the authority of the Administrator to pursue enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system.

(c) MODEL AIRCRAFT DEFINED.—In this section, the term ‘‘model aircraft’’ means an unmanned aircraft that is—

(1) capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere;
(2) flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and
(3) flown for hobby or recreational purposes.
This suggests that the drone-licensing and other requirements suggested in the notice of proposed rulemaking would not apply to hobbyist drone use.

While hobbyist use may not be affected very much if this proposal remains, these regulations would throw a wrench into the plans of companies like Amazon that have suggested that they may use drone technology to make deliveries. Prohibiting the operation of drones out of the sight of the people controlling drones would render these business models implausible. Other types of drone use like land and real estate surveys may become more widespread under these rules.

It is good to see that the FAA has finally released these proposals. I suspect that there will be a great deal of debate in days to come over these rules, and I look forward to seeing what rules end up being adopted once comments on these proposals are submitted.

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