Major Changes Coming to the Small Commercial Drone Industry


On February 14, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) document was leaked concerning proposed changes to regulations for the small commercial drone industry in the United States.  The following day, the FAA issued a statement confirming what these changes may be.

My previous blog post focused on how American tech giants such as Amazon and Google have left the U.S. to conduct drone testing as FAA regulations prohibited these companies from conducting testing in the U.S.

Now, it appears the FAA has changed course and will now permit the flight of small drones in America’s national airspace (NAS) for commercial purposes without having to file for a costly Section 333 exemption.

The leaked document demonstrates that the FAA has done some serious thinking and concluded that small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), a.k.a, small drones, are not a serious enough threat to America’s national airspace to continue the prohibitions of the past 8 years.

The FAA’s statement on Sunday captures the points of the leaked document.  Following is a summary of the proposed rule changes and the thinking behind them.

Economic Benefits

The FAA conducted an economic analysis on the small commercial drone industry and assessed the economic benefits of small UAS for four potential markets:

  1. Aerial photography
  2. Precision agriculture
  3. Search and rescue/law enforcement
  4. Bridge inspection

Safety Considerations

In addition to the analysis of economic benefits, the FAA also saw safety as a major benefit of small commercial drones.  Small drones:

  • Fly where heavier aircraft are unable;
  • May reduce the potential for accidents and property damage; and
  • May save lives as small drones can fly where climbers now go

Proposed Requirements for Operators of Small Drones

The leaked document and FAA statement sum up what the expected regulations will be for operators of small drones for commercial purposes.   The previously proposed regulations had expected all operators of the different classes of commercial drones to get a pilot’s certification (the same certification required to fly a plane) and pass a certified flight class.  These proposed regulations will set aside these requirements for operators of small drones.

In Tractica’s assessment, the proposal contains a sound set of regulations and required certifications similar to those already in place in other countries.  The possible proposed fee for certification will be $300 and will need to be renewed every 2 years.

General Regulations and Flight Regulations Summary

  • The drone is to weigh less than 55 pounds, fly at a maximum airspeed of 100 miles per hour, and not fly above 500 feet.
  • When flown, it is be in visual line of sight (VLOS) and operate during daylight.
  • No flight permitted in Class A airspace above 18,000 feet. ATC permission will be required for flight in Class B, C, D, and E airspace.  Operation in Class G airspace will be freely permitted.
  • An unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating will be required.
  • Aircraft worthiness certification is not needed; aircraft markings will be required.
  • Minimum age to fly drones for commercial purposes is 17.
  • Report accidents to the FAA within 10 days.

Small UAS Registration

The FAA proposes that small drones be registered with the FAA and be listed within the national aircraft registration database.

Aeronautical Knowledge Test

The FAA proposes that small drone operators of flight controls pass a knowledge test.  The applicant would be expected to know:

  • sUAS ratings and classifications
  • Airspace classification and operating requirements
  • Radio communications
  • Airport and aeronautical knowledge
  • Meteorological effects on a sUAS

TSA Background Check

A background check vetting an operator of small drones will be required.  The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will be the the agency responsible for conducting background checks.

Significance of Possible FAA Changes

It remains to be seen how this will all play out, as the FAA and TSA will become quite busy with working out the details and nuances of registering all the small drones and proposed operators as well as conducting background checks.

What this new proposed FAA change does signify is a realization that sometimes logic prevails.  The United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia all have similar regulations or proposals.  And now, at last, hopefully the U.S. will as well.

The doors will hopefully be open for the manufacturing and use of small drones in America’s national airspace and the small commercial drone industry will be able to take off.

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