Rules for Small Commercial Drones Take Effect

The long-awaited regulations for small commercial drones went into effect today. Here's what you need to know.

The long-awaited regulations for small commercial drones went into effect today. The new rules from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), formally known as Part 107, apply to drones that weigh under 55 pounds for companies looking to use drones for commercial purposes. This 624-page document outlines everything you need to know.

Basically, companies that want to use small drones for commercial purposes no longer need permission from the government to do so. Now companies can fly small drones after they pass a multiple-choice test and pay a small fee.

Here’s what the new rules include:

  • Drone operators must still maintain visual line of sight with the naked eye while the drone is flying.
  • Drones can only fly in the daytime, but twilight flying is allowed if the drone has anti-collision lights.
  • Drones can’t fly over people who aren’t participating in the operation of the drone.
  • Drones cannot fly higher than 400 feet or faster than 100 MPH.
  • Drones can carry packages, but the combined weight of the drone and packages must be less than 55 pounds.
  • Drone operators must be over 16 years old.

“The FAA’s role is to set a flexible framework of safety without impeding innovation,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “With these rules, we have created an environment in which emerging technology can be rapidly introduced while protecting the safety of the world’s busiest, most complex airspace.”

The FAA offers a free two-hour crash course and an 87-page study guide (PDF) to get people prepped for the test. Testing centers nationwide can now administer the test. After an operator passes the test, he or she must complete an FAA Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application to receive a remote pilot certificate.

It may take up to 48 hours for the website to record that the applicant has passed the knowledge test. The FAA expects to validate applications within 10 days. Applicants will then receive instructions for printing a temporary airman certificate, which is good for 120 days. The FAA will mail a permanent Remote Pilot Certificate within 120 days.

“Because of their size, drones like the ones you see today are well-suited for a wide variety of activities from oil rig inspections to search-and-rescue missions. There are dozens of missions a drone can do that would otherwise put a life at risk,” said Anthony Foxx, secretary of transportation at the Department of Transportation.

These new rules, however, don’t address delivery drones, such as the drones delivering Domino’s pizza in New Zealand. The visual line of sight and flying over people restrictions still prevent drone delivery from taking off. But this is, at least, a step in the right direction.

Operators still need to apply for waivers if they want to fly drones at night, above 400 feet and in other specific types of operations. Huerta said there are already 76 waivers to fly outside the parameters put in place by the rules, the majority of which have to do with flying at night.

Section 333 vs. Part 107: What Works for You?

One of the biggest questions for drone operators now is whether you’re are better off flying under Part 107 or under a Section 333 exemption, which is more expensive and time-consuming to obtain.

Your exemption is valid until it expires - usually two years after it was issued. Even after Part 107 becomes effective, you may choose to fly following the conditions and limitations in your exemption.

However, if you want to operate under the new regulations, you’ll have to obtain a remote pilot certificate and follow all of the rule’s operating provisions. You must apply for a waiver if some parts of your operation don’t meet the rule’s requirements.

If you already have a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization under your Section 333 exemption – a “COA” – you can continue to fly under the COA limitations until it expires. If you don’t already have a COA, you probably won’t need one when the new drone rules go into effect.

If you applied for a Section 333 exemption but haven’t received it yet, you should have received a letter from the FAA with specific information about the status of your petition.  Generally, if your petition is pending and falls within the provisions of the rule, you should follow the steps outlined in the rule.

Whether you choose to fly under your exemption or under the new small drone rule is your choice, depending on how you want to operate your aircraft. You’ll have to compare the conditions and limitations in your exemption to the operating requirements in the rule to determine which one best addresses your needs.

About the Author

Steve Crowe · Steve Crowe is managing editor of Robotics Trends. Steve has been writing about technology since 2008. He lives in Belchertown, MA with his wife and daughter.
Contact Steve Crowe:  ·  View More by Steve Crowe.


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