What You Need To Know About The FAA's New Drone Rules

They're a big flying deal

Two Parrot Quadcopters In Flight

Two Parrot Quadcopters In Flight

Halftermeyer, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

As early as last summer, it looked like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was never going to figure out drone rules. Technical, legal, and definition-based challenges hobbled their efforts to weave unmanned aircraft into American skies.

Sunday, however, was a huge day for the drone world. The FAA, responsible for ensuring aircraft don't crash into each other, proposed a new set of drone flight rules.

Their proposal lays out two broad categories of drone to regulate, and those categories include what most hobbyists and small businesses are interested in flying: drones weighing 55 pounds or less, and ones weighing less than 4.4 pounds. These categories are, respectively, “small unmanned aerial system” (UAS) and “micro-UAS.”

Drones that consumers can buy right now, like the DJI Phantom 2 that crashed on the White House lawn, would fall under the micro-drone category. Big working drones that companies are most likely to use--for example, an oil pipeline-inspecting aircraft--would fall into the other category.

Here are a few of the major proposed rules:

  • No careless or reckless operations
  • Daylight-only operations (official sunrise to official sunset, local time)
  • Maximum airspeed of 100 mph
  • Maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level

Those criteria mostly concern basic operation of a drone, and you can find more such rules in the government's official summary.

In addition, the FAA proposed a sort of drone operator license with the following criteria:

  • 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 (like existing pilot airman certificates, never expires)
  • Pass a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test every 24 months
  • Be at least 17 years old
  • Make available to the FAA, upon request, the small UAS for inspection or testing, and any associated documents/records required to be kept under the proposed rule
  • Report an accident to the FAA within 10 days of any operation that results in injury or property damage
  • Conduct a pre-flight inspection, to include specific aircraft and control station systems checks, to ensure the small UAS is safe for operation

Who would need a certificate? As far as we know, anyone who wants to fly--consumers, businesses, and editors alike. The one exception in a drone-regulated future, however, might be model airplanes. Flying a model airplane without a license is currently legal, for one, and--just as important--the model airplane community is a staunch and organized supporter of this fact.

Congress already gave the FAA clearance to do what it wants in regard to drones, but the newly proposed rules aren't yet in effect. The FAA will first open the floor to public comment for 60 days via regulations.gov and might change the rules, pending feedback. (We'll be sure to let you know when the commenting period begins.)

Whatever happens, any rules are a huge leap forward from where the FAA was just months ago: It means American drone businesses have an idea of what to expect from the law in the future, and to plan accordingly--or go down fighting.

Read the FAA's complete proposed drone rules here.