FAA Clears The Way For Drone Businesses

Flying low over legislative hurdles

DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter

DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter

DJI Phantom 4 QuadcopterScreenshot by author, from YouTube

Drone law is about to do something unusual: today, with the opening of a commercial waiver system by the FAA, legally flying a drone for business is about to get easier. The change was announced in June, and takes place today. For people who want to fly a drone for business, there is now a straightforward process, instead of a mess of conflicting and unclear rules.

There are two ways to get a Part 107 certificate to fly drones for business purposes. Pilots (who have to be at least 16 years old) can either take a test or, if they already have a different sort of pilot certificate, take a flight review course. The study guide for the test is over 80 pages. This is a break from previous rules, where drone pilots had to be certified as aircraft pilots first, and then apply for a special business or research exemption to fly drones legally.

With certification, a pilot can fly a drone weighing less than 55 pounds during daylight hours, within the line of sight of the pilot or an affiliated spotter, at altitudes of no more than 400 feet, at speeds of no greater than 100 mph, and so long as they don't fly over people. These rules are all expected, and the FAA outlined them in its June announcement.

If pilots want to fly drones outside these constraints, they can apply for a specific waiver on top of the certificate, for instance to fly a drone at night, as 72 applicants already have, or over crowds (as CNN did).

One of the major unanswered questions for the FAA is whether these new rules also bring the full legal protections of other aircraft to drone owners. Specifically, it is a federal crime to shoot at aircraft, and while that was a rare occurrence when all aircraft carried people and flew well beyond rifle range, it's an increasingly common occurrence with people shooting at drones near or over their property. Previously, the FAA has said that shooting at drones is a federal crime, just like it would be for other flying machines.

As for the commercial drones themselves, we're likely to see lots of headlines about delivery drones, and lots of actual drones put to work on farms first. Journalism, too, stands to gain from the new drone authorizations, as news organizations can get cameras in the sky faster and cheaper than before.

Drone delivery, meanwhile, will want rules that let drones fly beyond line of sight before they can work. Until the FAA has new rules for that, or starts granting waivers specifically for long-range delivery, expect companies like Amazon to keep developing their tech abroad, while other drone industries take off in the United States.