What’s Up Next

Since many people have entered the small unmanned aerial system (sUAS or drone) space in the last year, it is wothwhile to recap where we are, and what is cming soon, just over the horizon.

The FAA has been working on this since at least 2008, when it chartered the small UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC).  That committee issued its report in 2009.  In 2012 Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, and gave the FAA the task (in Section 332) to integrate sUAS operations into the national airspace (NAS), in Section 333 gave the FAA the authority to establish requirements for the safe operation of these systems in the NAS.

For recreational users the FAA now has an on-line procedure for registration of sUAS owners, and a set of best practice safety guidelines.  DOG covered that here.  Just anecdotal, but while most recreational pilots are observing the safety guidelines, a few screwups resist and grab headlines when drones are used in contravention of the best practices.  If you follow the on-line boards it is not hard to find the “if it ain’t illegal I can do what I damn well please” mentality.  Not surprisingly, that leads to general public antagonism, which is leading to a patchwork quilt of local laws.  Despite an attempt by the FAA to inject some sense into this federalism dispute, it is not working.  Are you listening Congress and FAA?  Please adopt some laws or regulations beyond best practices!  This currently is being done for special zones through the issuance of Notices to Airmen (NOTAMS) and Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), but we won’t get uniform respect from all honnyists until a law is passed.

The FAA issued a Notice of Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft in June 2014.  You can read it here.  While it is slow going, it explains the issue.  Congress (in the 2012 Act) directed that the FAA may not “promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft,” while it is being operated in accord with five statutory conditions.  (see p.6 of the Notice).  So, the real wrench in the works has been thrown by Congress, not the FAA, and the FAA has to walk a political path to regulate recreational UAS.

Commercial, or “non-recreational use” is just forbidden by Section 333.  The FAA, however, has accommodated non-recreational small UAS use through various mechanisms, such as special airworthiness certificates, exemptions, and certificates of waiver or authorization (COA).  So, it you want to use an sUAS for business, you need to contact the FAA and get an exemption.  

This is all going to change, however.  In February 2015 (a year ago) the FAA published a Notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), and received public comments through April 2015.  The guess at that time was that it would take at least a year, and possibly longer, for the Rule to become final.  So, we are all waiting.  Are you listening FAA?

To be clear, adoption of the final rule will primarily impact commercial use.  For many people it will no longer be necessary to obtain exemptions, or certificates of waiver or authorization (COA).  But, not everything will be covered, so some special cases will still need special handling.

An overview of the rule is here, but in particular note that the need for the pilot in charge to be licensed is to be replaced by a requirement that operators pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test, be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, pass a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test every 24 months, and be at least 17 years old.

`© Robert Rose 2015