FAA Unveils Drone Rules: Autonomy Is In, Drone Delivery Is Out

The proposed rules are surprisingly reasonable, but there are things that need work

7 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

FAA drone rules
Photo: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr

Yesterday, on a Sunday, right after Valentine’s Day, in the middle of a holiday weekend, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration decided to announce the long-awaited Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), governing the operation of drones under 55 pounds (25 kilograms). We’ve been watching the FAA take swings at commercial UAS rules for a while, usually cringing as they do, even as commercial drone operators desperately plead for reasonable procedures under which they can legally run their businesses.

The worry has always been that the FAA would attempt to over-regulate, requiring things like airworthiness certificates for drones and pilot’s licenses for drone operators and all manner of other restrictions that would make it a lot harder for people to use UAS. It seems that the FAA has been listening, though, and the agency’s proposed rules for UAS show a level of openness, restraint, and general not-that-bad-ness that’s a pleasant surprise.

Having said that, there’s still a lot of important stuff to understand whether you fly big-ish or small-ish drones. We have all the proposed rules, along with some analysis of the sticking points of the current proposal, after the jump.

The Rules

Below is a summary of the operational limitations for sUAS: in other words, all the stuff that you must do, and can’t do. We’ve bolded the most relevant rules if you just want to skim:

  • Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs. (25 kg).
  • Visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only; the unmanned aircraft must remain within VLOS of the operator or visual observer.
  • At all times the small unmanned aircraft must remain close enough to the operator for the operator to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.
  • Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation.
  • Daylight-only operations (official sunrise to official sunset, local time).
  • Must yield right-of-way to other aircraft, manned or unmanned.
  • May use visual observer (VO) but not required.
  • First-person view camera cannot satisfy “see-and-avoid” requirement but can be used as long as requirement is satisfied in other ways.
  • Maximum airspeed of 100 mph (87 knots).
  • Maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level.
  • Minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from control station.
  • No operations are allowed in Class A (18,000 feet & above) airspace.
  • Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are allowed with the required ATC permission.
  • Operations in Class G airspace are allowed without ATC permission.
  • No person may act as an operator or VO for more than one unmanned aircraft operation at one time.
  • No careless or reckless operations.
  • Requires preflight inspection by the operator.
  • A person may not operate a small unmanned aircraft if he or she knows or has reason to know of any physical or mental condition that would interfere with the safe operation of a small UAS.
  • Proposes a microUAS option that would allow operations in Class G airspace, over people not involved in the operation, provided the operator certifies he or she has the requisite aeronautical knowledge to perform the operation.

In addition, in order to fly a sUAS, you (as an operator) and your drone would need to meet the following requirements:

  • Operator Requirements:
    • 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 preflight inspection, to include specific aircraft and control station systems checks, to ensure the small UAS is safe for operation. 
  • Aircraft Requirements:
    • FAA airworthiness certification not required. However, operator must maintain a small UAS in condition for safe operation and prior to flight must inspect the UAS to ensure that it is in a condition for safe operation.
    • Aircraft Registration required (same requirements that apply to all other aircraft).
    • Aircraft markings required (same requirements that apply to all other aircraft). If aircraft is too small to display markings in standard size, then the aircraft simply needs to display markings in the largest practicable manner. 

For what it’s worth, the FAA acknowledges that it’s not like they’re going to be out actively policing everyone flying drones, handing out fines if your drone is flying at 501 feet, or speeding along at 101 mph. But, they could. In other words, the rules are enforceable, and there can be consequences imposed on people who break them. Think of it like driving a car: usually, you can go a bit over the speed limit, run yellow lights, and make the occasional illegal u-turn. If you do something notably unsafe in such a way that someone notices, however, you can get in a lot of trouble. In other words, be safe, and don’t be stupid.

What About Autonomy?

One thing that is not addressed here is autonomy: can commercial drones fly themselves? The FAA rules are clearly based around human operators, but the FAA’s UAS FAQ also says that an unmanned aircraft can be flown by “a pilot via a ground control system, or autonomously through use of an on-board computer, communication links and any additional equipment that is necessary for the UA to operate safely.”

There’s also one single specific reference to autonomy being allowed that we’ll point to later, although it’s all by itself and there’s no other mention of autonomy, so we’re not sure what it really means. However, since the primary focus of these rules is to establish safe operating procedures, our guess hope would be that the FAA doesn’t really care if your drone is autonomous or not, as long as you retain overall control of the system and it obeys all of the other rules.

UPDATE: Confirmed by the WSJ. Autonomy is fine, as long as the operator can take over if necessary.

Things That Need Work

Here are a few potential sticking points, both from our perspective and also from reading comments from a bunch of drone people on Twitter (including Ryan Calo, Helen Greiner, Brendan Schulman, Patrick Egan, and Iain Butler, among others):

1. No beyond line of sight operation: This is a big deal, because at least for now, it effectively kills off delivery drones (unless you want to deliver something to someone you can, uh, see). Using a FPV system doesn’t count: you have to be able to actually see the drone (with your eyeballs) at all times if needed. The FAA says that it’s “aggressively researching” flying a drone beyond line of sight, and the press release is soliciting “comments on whether the rules should permit operations beyond line of sight, and if so, what the appropriate limits should be.” So, there’s hope.

2. No flying at night: Many people seem to be upset by this, arguing that it’s just as easy (and in some cases easier) to visually keep track of a flying drone at night if it’s well lit. This is true, but my guess would be that the FAA is concerned that flying at night makes it harder to see other things, like obstacles.

3. No flying over random people: Flying a drone in a public area but not flying it over people without their consent is impractical at best, and impossible at worst. But you can see where the FAA is coming from: drones are potentially dangerous, and someone out for a walk in the park shouldn’t have to worry about getting nailed in the face by one. More importantly, if someone out for a walk in the park does get smacked, they (or the FAA) can come after you for flying illegally.

4. Max altitude of 500 feet: 500 feet is high, but it’s not that high. This is an airspace thing for the FAA, but it certainly puts some significant limits on (say) using drones for agricultural imaging, and possibly inspections and other applications.

Amazon, which has been working on its Prime Air drone delivery programhas released a statement on the proposed rules, and predictably, they’re not happy about the restriction preventing delivery drones:

“The FAA’s proposed rules for small UAS could take one or two years to be adopted and, based on the proposal, even then those rules wouldn’t allow Prime Air to operate in the United States,” said Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of Global Public Policy.

“The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers. We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need.”

This strikes me as a rather narrowly negative attitude, and I question the “prepared to deploy” bit that makes it sound like the FAA is the only reason why Prime Air isn’t flying now.

Separate Rules for Micro UAS

The FAA is also considering a separate set of rulings for “micro UAS,” which would cover UAS that weigh less than 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms). This covers the vast majority of the drones that you probably think of when someone talks about a “drone,” including the DJI Phantom (2.5 pounds), and the 3D Robotics Iris (3 pounds). The DJI Inspire, at over 6 pounds, would be a small UAS, not a micro UAS.

The FAA looked at UAS policies in other countries, and decided to adapt the regulatory framework used in Canada. Below is a chart highlighting the primary provisions, and how it works in Canada, the proposed small UAS rules, and the rules for micro UAS that the FAA is thinking about:

Definition < 4.4 lbs (2 kg)< 55 lbs (25 kg) < 4.4 lbs (2 kg)
Maximum Altitude 300 ft500 ft400 ft
Airspace LimitsClass G onlyClass G and E. Class B, C, D with ATC permissionClass G only
Distance From Obstacles100 feet laterally from structures, 100 feet from peopleOperation prohibited over any person not involved in operationFlying over any person is permitted
Operational Area ExtensionNoYes, from a boatNo
Autonomous OperationsNoYesNo
Aeronautical Knowledge RequiredGround schoolKnowledge testSelf-certification
FPV PermittedNoYes, if you can also visually see UASNo
Operator TrainingGround schoolNot requiredNot required
Visual Observer TrainingGround schoolNot requiredNot required
Operator CertificateNot requiredRequired, must pass basic UAS aeronautical testRequired, no knowledge test
Preflight Safety CheckRequiredRequiredRequired
Near-Airport OperationsNoYesNo
Congested Area OperationsNoYesYes
Liability InsuranceRequired, $100,000NoNo
Daylight OnlyYesYesYes
Aircraft Made of Frangible MaterialsNoNoYes

That last bit about “frangible materials” (to minimize the threat small drones pose to people and other aicraft) is interesting. Here’s more: 

The FAA is also considering whether to require, as part of the micro UAS approach, that the micro UAS be made out of frangible material. The unmanned aircraft would be made out of frangible materials that break, distort, or yield on impact so as to present a minimal hazard to any person or object that the unmanned aircraft collides with. Examples of such materials are breakable plastic, paper, wood, and foam.  A UAS that is made out of frangible material presents a significantly lower risk to persons on the ground, as that UAS is more likely to shatter if it should impact a person rather than injuring that person. Without the risk mitigation provided by frangible-material construction, the FAA would be unable to allow micro UAS to operate directly over a person not involved in the operation. The FAA notes that, currently, a majority of fixed-wing small UAS are made out of frangible materials that would satisfy the proposed requirement.

What’s Next

These rules aren’t official yet. There’s a 60-day commentary period, and even if these rules are perfect for everyone (which they’re not, obviously), it’ll take 12-18 months to turn them into laws. Until that happens, the current unmanned aircraft rules are what you’ll want to follow, more on those here.

The FAA’s entire notice of proposed rulemaking (all 195 pages of it) is now online, and can be read here.

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