WSJ scoop on forthcoming FAA rules -- pilots license will be required for commercial use unless Congress intervenes

Highly anticipated federal rules on commercial drones are expected to require operators to have a license and limit flights to daylight hours, below 400 feet and within sight of the person at the controls, according to people familiar with the rule-making process.

The drone industry has awaited commercial rules for about six years, hoping the rules would pave the way for widespread drone use in industries such as farming, filmmaking and construction. Current FAA policy allows recreational drone flights in the U.S. but essentially bars drones from commercial use.

While the FAA wants to open the skies to unmanned commercial flights, the expected rules are more restrictive than drone supporters sought and wouldn’t address privacy concerns over the use of drones, people familiar with the matter said.

The agency also plans to group all drones weighing less than 55 pounds under one set of rules. That would dash hopes for looser rules on the smallest drones, such as the 2.8-pound Phantom line of camera-equipped, four-rotor helicopters made by China’s SZ DJI Technology Co. Similar-sized devices are seen as the most commercially viable drones and have surged in popularity in the last two years.

Small-drone supporters say such models are less risky to people and structures than heavier drones like Boeing Co. ’s ScanEagle, a gas-powered, 40-pound aircraft with a 10-foot wingspan that can stay aloft for more than 24 hours. ConocoPhillips Co. uses the ScanEagle to gather data on Arctic ice pack and whale migrations.

In addition, pilot certifications likely to be proposed by the FAA would typically require dozens of hours flying manned aircraft, according to people familiar with the rule-making discussions. Drone proponents have resisted requiring traditional pilot training for drone operators.

FAA officials expect to announce proposed rules by year-end. The proposal will kick off a public comment period that is likely to flood the agency with feedback. It could take one or two years to issue final rules.

In a statement, the FAA said it is working to “integrate unmanned aircraft into the busiest, most complex airspace system in the world—and to do so while we maintain our mission—protecting the safety of the American people in the air and on the ground. That is why we are taking a staged approach to the integration of these new airspace users.”

The White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing the current FAA proposal and seeking comments from other parts of the government, including the Pentagon and law-enforcement agencies. Last-minute objections could change some specifics and delay release of the proposed rules.

The agency has said it is moving carefully on drone rules out of concern for potential collisions with other aircraft and injury to people and structures on the ground.

Airline pilots and aircraft owners have supported the cautious approach. But some drone-industry officials predict a loud backlash to the proposal.

“I feel like there’s a colossal mess coming,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, an advocacy group for drone makers and innovators, includingGoogle Inc. and Inc. The rule is going to be “so divorced from the technology and the aspirations of this industry…that we’re going to see a loud rejection.”

Unmanned aircraft have proliferated in U.S. skies as technology makes them smaller, cheaper, more powerful and easier to fly. While the FAA has helped build unparalleled safety into passenger air-travel with strict manufacturing and operating rules, the system didn’t foresee thousands of small aircraft buzzing around at low altitude.

The FAA’s current policy allows commercial drone flights only with case-by-case approval. Officials have authorized just a handful of companies so far.

Still, thousands of entrepreneurs are believed to be flying the devices without FAA clearance, making it hard for those operators to get insurance.

Some government and aviation-industry officials are worried about surging use without meaningful oversight. Pilots are increasingly reporting midair drone sightings, including three near John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York last week.

Drone proponents say the U.S.’s regulatory approach is less accommodating than in other countries. This month, Canada plans to issue blanket approval for all commercial operations that use drones weighing less than 4.4 pounds as long as they comply with certain safety standards, such as altitude limits and no-fly zones around airports.

The FAA must “properly balance regulatory restrictions and the safety risks posed by” various sizes of unmanned aircraft, said Ted Ellett, a former FAA chief counsel who now is a partner at law firm Hogan Lovells US LLP. Mr. Ellett said a “one-size-fits-all” approach “will create yet another unnecessary and costly impediment.”

Gretchen West, former executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the nation’s biggest drone-lobbying group, said large, powerful drones like those used by the military got more attention when the FAA began working on the rules.

Since then, much of the growth has shifted to smaller drones. The expected rules are “going to be very restrictive for small systems,” she added.

Jesse Kallman, head of regulatory affairs for drone-software firm Airware, said requiring commercial drone pilots to have cockpit training “will end up excluding someone who has hundreds of hours of experience on an unmanned aircraft in favor of a pilot who understands how to operate a Cessna but not an unmanned aircraft.”

In exemptions granted to six filmmaking companies to use drones on film sets earlier this year, the FAA required operators to have private-pilot licenses.

The FAA’s draft rule is expected to require lower-level pilot certifications requiring fewer flight hours, according to people familiar with the matter.

One former FAA official said the agency is concerned that statutes bar it from authorizing commercial aircraft operations that don’t have a certified pilot.

The agency is drafting language asking Congress for greater flexibility, this person said.

The planned 400-foot flying limit within the operator’s sight largely follows the FAA’s current rules for recreational uses of drones. Those rules are based partly on voluntary guidelines for model aircraft published by the agency in 1981.

Drone proponents say the FAA is relying on decades-old regulations that don’t account for advancements in technology. Many drone pilots use “first-person view” technology allowing them to rely on real-time footage from a drone’s camera broadcast to their controller or headwear that resembles virtual-reality visors. Users can add infrared and other sensors for night or low-visibility missions.

The FAA’s expected requirement for daylight flights within the operator’s sight would essentially prohibit many commercial applications, such as pipeline inspections and crop monitoring on large farms.

The FAA is awaiting data from a number of test sites before proposing regulations affecting drones that weigh more than 55 pounds. That process is expected to take at least several years. Until then, many states and local governments are likely to establish their own standards.

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Comment by Patrick Egan on November 26, 2014 at 1:44pm

I love to see the glass half full!

Comment by Denny Rowland on November 27, 2014 at 10:00am

Full size Aerial Photography in the UK has not been altogether without incidence. We had jet fighters having mid air collisions with Cessnas and a few low flyers who managed controlled flight into terrain. It took about twenty five years before any realistic enforcement came in with the AOC affecting commercial AP flights. It was a case of just don't say it's commercial and save yourself about 30 K per year. The CAA saw AP as a grey area and even went so far as to produce a small guide showing how to avoid being classed as commercial. The last few years have seen some tighter rules for flying clubs who simply got around the system by calling it a trail lesson. What it all boils down to is the fact that General Aviation is being supported by the Airlines so it is bad economy to get involved with something this trivial. The airlines object to funding GA in a word. Unless they can fart about with pieces of paper that have a large fee attached to them, it becomes a problem they just don't want because most civil servants can have a much easier life when they simply say no to everything. Only when it is a matter of National Security does someone get really interested. Maybe we should be trying to legalise a much broader and less commercial aspect that contains flight within a tighter and more controlled environment with tiered system of operators working within the auspices of local police who would make the final judgement on how and where. In Cyprus we have they army running that show.  

Comment by Drones Daily on November 27, 2014 at 10:30am

We've been working on a tool to help people find out how far they are from active airstrips in the US - - would love to get peoples feedback here!

Comment by Denny Rowland on November 27, 2014 at 11:09am

I can say with confidence that over the last forty years almost all accidents involving full size aircraft AP ops. have happened as a result of flying below 500 feet above ground level. The next offending indiscretion was taking into account the min. legal height above a town or city and not adhering to the extra height required to meet the glide clear rule. Next up is flying without an observer in the aircraft. It is not just airports that represent a danger from drones as there are a great many Nav. beacons on hills that also pose a problem as pilots tend to have heads down looking at instruments in that area. It follows therefore that the use of model technology will in some cases actually free the sky of unwanted danger. The Cessna flyer is always looking to get in closer and as such most of the old pros have had a few rubs with officialdom in their careers So lets just say that 400 feet is a good limit for a drone as most of the time you will be much better off a lot lower than that. 

Comment by Josh on November 27, 2014 at 10:15pm
The FAA is going to make so many hoops to jump through to get "licensed" that it won't be worth it
Comment by John A. Malley on November 28, 2014 at 3:12pm

A pilot's license isn't needed so much as is a pilot's understanding of controlled airspace and the "rules of the road." I think in the long run we in the USA will see something similar to the rules in 14 CFR PART 101- MOORED BALLOONS, KITES, AMATEUR ROCKETS AND UNMANNED FREE BALLOONS for small UAV with line of sight  and autonomous control below 400 feet AGL.  

John Croft's (senior editor avionics and safety) points out that the threat to commercial transports posed by small UAVs like quad (or n-) copters is nor worse than the threat posed by big birds. Some folks may be hyping up the "danger" due to n-copters. 

144 CFR Part 25 includes specific rules for airplane structure and design that address bird strikes. The airplane tail design must tolerate the damage due to a 8 pound bird, for example, and other regulations apply to  windshields, and structure, and engines when they ingest a bird. ( See  ) These requirement indirectly address the potential damage to a commercial airplane struck by a small UAV.  It should be able to take it and land safely. 

See the November 24th Aviation Week and Space Technology essay

Comment by Jake Stew on November 29, 2014 at 2:16am

A pilot's license isn't needed so much as is a pilot's understanding of controlled airspace and the "rules of the road."

Why?  We're not flying in controlled airspace.  We're flying in airspace that no aircraft is legally allowed to be flying in.  There should be ZERO chance of crashing with a manned aircraft.

Next time an accident, near-miss, or concern happens we need to steer the conversation away from

"drones are dangerous and need regulation" to "public and private landowners are now using more airspace in connection with their property, the FAA is now increasingly infringing on that use, so the FAA needs to raise the deck on manned flights."

All it will take is one judge deciding that flying a drone is a legitimate use of private property and is a right in connection with use of the land, and the FAA's rules will be pushed up to whatever the judge feels is a reasonable flight altitude.


Comment by John A. Malley on November 29, 2014 at 8:20pm

I should be more clear about the need for a pilot's understand of the "rules of the road" and controlled airspace.

We owe a duty of care to third parties and their property whenever we use a UAS with a UAV.  We should take "reasonable" steps to make sure the state of the UAV before we operate, and the way we operate the UAV, does not injure a third party or damage the third party's property. The duty of care is in the common law in the USA, other nations may have similar expectations.  What is "reasonable" needs to be determined.

The risk posed by the UAS and its UAV to third parties and their property scales with factors like the UAV weight and operational height, the UAS communications method (line of sight, autonomous, over the horizon), airspace use (controlled or not controlled, exposure to aircraft traffic), and overflight area (population density, kinds of structures beneath.)  Commercial use of a UAS can result in more risk even when the UAV is small and operated below 400 feet AGL - for example, flying a UAV with a camera over a large public gathering in the middle of a city to record the event for a fee, versus  flying the same small UAV for fun in the countryside over a green belt.

The specific risk posed by a specific way a specific UAS and UAV class is used determines (1) the need for regulation, if any, to define and constrain the risk, (2) the need for a license, if any, to help constrain the risk, and (3) the kind or licensing, if any, to help constrain the risk.  The specific risk also allows us to propose, and determine, the level of "reasonable" actions to take when operating the UAS and UAV, and the reasonably expected features in the UAV and UAS design (geo-fencing, return home or return to a "safe" point functions, spin stabilization and decent algorithms for safe landing after a motor/sensor/prop failure, or redundant props, etc) Require design features fall under (1) the need for regulation, if any, to constrain the risk.

We may not expect detailed design airworthiness requirements on small UAVs, but for sure we can expect a few specific design requirements from the FAA  if the risk for a specific operational scenario is big enough.

We can operate a small (say 5 pound or so) UAV by line of sight communications under 400 feet AGL over our private property, today.  We owe a duty of care to our family, friends, and nearby neighbors.

The DIYdrones Regulatory FAQ covers this scenario,

and the Academy of Model Aeronautics safety code offers some additional guidance, at

I don't see a pressing need for a pilot's license when operating a UAV less than 5 pounds below 400 feet AGL for fun and recreation, if the operator follows this guidance.

I can see a new FAR defining the need for no license if the UAV meets certain weight restrictions, is flow in line of sight control, and is kept below 400 feet AGL.  And the need for some kind of license, and other expectations, if operating above that restriction for business. And the need for a different kind of license, and other expectations, if operating a large UAV. That would be like the rules in 14 CFR Section 101 with a bit of 14 CFR 91 thrown in.

We should try to come up with an argument to include autonomous flight below 400 feet ALG into that "no license" area. The UAV needs some level of assurance that its geo-fence algorithm will work such that there is a "reasonable" expectation, commensurate with the risk, that it functions when needed.

Comment by Pedals2Paddles on November 30, 2014 at 9:18am

@ Jake Stew, You are incorrect.  The notion of 0-500ft being "private" is completely wrong.  And the notion of no real aircraft being allowed below 500ft is also completely wrong.  You keep saying this over and over.  And people keep correcting you over and over.  You are completely incorrect about every bit of what you're saying.  Sorry. 

Comment by Denny Rowland on November 30, 2014 at 8:41pm


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