It is 2017 and commercial drone operations are no longer a thing of the future. In September 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration enacted Federal Aviation Regulations Part 107, titled Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. This authority allows licensed operators to fly small unmanned aircraft, weighing 55 pounds or less, for a commercial purpose. So, what does that mean for businesses, municipalities, and hobbyists?
Flying for Fun
Hobbyists have the most liberal rules for flying a drone, and are regulated by Community Based Organization standards. What this means is that is you are flying for fun, there is not much you cannot do. You must still contact a tower if within 5 miles of an airport and you cannot otherwise endanger the safety of the national airspace system and must give way to other aircraft. However, based on the language of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, the FAA may not otherwise regulate hobby drones. This was most recently seen in Taylor v. FAA, a D.C. Circuit case where the requirement to even register a hobby drone was shut down by the court.
All this being said, unsafe operations are well within the reach of the FAA and are regularly pursued for enforcement action when safety violations occur.
Flying as a Private Business
Private industry must follow a stricter set of rules than their hobbyist counterpart and cannot use some of the options granted to government entities.
These businesses are the primary users of Part 107 which sets out specific guidelines by default for the commercial operation of a small drone. Generally speaking, the operator must be licensed by the FAA with Remote Pilot Certificate, and must fly the drone during daylight hours within their sight and with a safety observer. There are also rules on where the drone may fly, defined by the people underneath and airspace, as well as what type of payload they may carry.
There is good news, however! The FAA has included a large list of rules that may be waived or an authorization issued. These waivers and authorizations permit an operator to fly in places or manners that are prohibited by default, allowing for a broader range of business concepts. The caveat is that waivers and authorizations are not easy to obtain. There is an application where specific safety and operational wickets must be addressed before a final go-ahead is given. The waiting period for the process is also about 90 days, so prior planning is a must.
If a commercial operator wishes to conduct operations with larger drones, or in a way not otherwise permissible or waiverable by Part 107, then they must obtain a Section 333 exemption. There are more difficult and specific, and are generally disfavored for smaller operations, based on their complexity and cost to organize, petition, and seek approval.
Flying as the Government
Civil Government entities generally have the same ability to fly under Part 107 as a private business. However, they also have access to a more encompassing set of rules, referred to as a Certificate of Authorization. These authorizations effectively allow a government entity to create their own operational landscape, where they utilize their own training programs and certify in accordance with their own standards. However, in order to obtain a COA, their entire program must be reviewed by the FAA and should include geographical limits as well as a robust safety and training pipeline. The entity should also expect to incorporate experienced aviation employees into their structure in order to gain approval.
These approvals do have their benefits, however, and can allow for even more discretion for police, fire, general emergency, city maintenance, event management, and any of the other possible reasons a government may use a drone.
Other Regulations and Rules
Part 107 stands as only one of many regulatory hurdles for a drone operator. There are state and federal restrictions on where a drone may fly, who may fly, and for what purpose it may fly. These rules are vast and confusing and may subject an operator to civil or criminal sanctions. Texas is particularly strict on privacy rules for drones, where many operations over any private property may be a crime for the otherwise good-faith commercial operator. Certain steps must be taken pre- or post-flight in order to protect the operator and the footage produced.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The FAA has opened the door to all types of entities to enjoy drones for purposes beyond imagination. As the industry grows, companies, cities, and individuals must ensure they take proactive steps to protect their interests as well as those around them during operation. Commercial operators and enthusiasts alike should actively monitor the FAA, the Courts, and our blog here at Parker Straus as every day brings new legal challenges for the ever growing drone industry.
Also, if you are seeking a COA or Waiver, feel free to contact us for assistance. We would love to help you and will individually tailor a solution to your need.