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US FAA proposes rules to allow commercial UAV operation

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In general the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for commercial purposes is illegal in the U.S. But in the last few months the Federal Aviation Administration has issued grants of exemption to six companies for commercial UAVs for general aerial surveys (Trimble, Woolpert) and specifically for construction monitoring (Clayco, Inc), agriculture (Advanced Aviation Solutions), on and offshore oil and gas inspections (VDOS Global), and real estate (Douglas Trudeau, Realtor). But the requirements were very restrictive, for example, the UAV could not be flown at a ground speed exceeding 50 knots, both an operator and a visual observer were required, the operator had to have a private pilot certificate, and the flight time was limited to 30 minutes.

Now the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM). The FAA is proposing to amend its regulations to adopt specific rules for the operation of small unmanned aircraft systems (small UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) for non-hobby and non-recreational purposes.

By statute a small unmanned aircraft is an unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kg). As mentioned above, the FAA has granted exemptions to specific companies in the past. This proposed rule is intended as the next phase of integrating small UAS into the NAS. The FAA has listed the types of operations the proposed rule would allow; crop monitoring/inspection, research and development, educational/academic uses, power-line/pipeline inspection in hilly or mountainous terrain, antenna inspections, aiding certain rescue operations such as locating snow avalanche victims, bridge inspections, aerial photography and wildlife nesting area evaluations.

UAV operation restrictions

The proposed rule would limit small UAS to daylight-only operations (official sunrise to official sunset, local time), confined areas of operation, and visual-line-of-sight (VLOS) operations. The unmanned aircraft must remain close enough to the operator for the operator to be capable of seeing the aircraft with unaided vision such as binoculars or telescopes or a camera installed on the aircraft. A visual observer (VO) can be used but is not required. Very importantly small UAS aircraft are not required to have a FAA airworthiness certification, which can take years to acquire. However, as with any aircraft Aircraft Registration and standard Aircraft Markings are required. The UAS must give way to any other aircraft.

The small UAS is not permitted to operate over any people not directly involved in the operation. Its maximum airspeed must be100 mph or less (87 knots). It cannot fly higher than 500 feet above ground level or above 18,000 feet of altitude. Minimum weather visibility is 3 miles from the control station. The small UAS cannot be operated from a moving vehicle or aircraft. There does not appear to be any restriction on total flight time.

Operator restrictions

An operator of a small UAS would be required to be at least 17 years old, pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center, be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating, and pass a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test every 24 months.

Compared to the grants of exemption that the FAA has issued in the last few months, these rules are lenient. Probably the most restrictive are the visual-line-of-sight requirement and the requirement that the operator cannot operate the UAV from a moving vehicle. The VLOS requirement effectively excludes long range UAVs.

The proposed regulation was published on the Federal Register for public comment on February 23, 2015. Comments are required to be submitted on or before April 24, 2015.