3D Robotics


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 Amazon.com 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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  • Moderator

    +1 Doug

  • @Jake Stew,

    Please clarify how you came up with your statement ".........trying to take the 500 feet of private airspace ....."?

    I believe that statement is incorrect in that a private owner do not own the sky's above his property, only the space that is considered reasonable. 


    No one owns airspace up to 500 feet, they do however "...owns only so much airspace above their property as that may reasonable use in connection with their enjoyment of the underlying land.  In other words, a person's real property ownership includes a reasonable amount of airspace above the property." 


    The 500 feet limit (in rural areas) is for safety of flight in case a pilot has an emergency and needs to be able to land safely using the remaining height to do so.  The minimum altitude in congested areas is 1000 feet minimum.


    The FAA has the sole authority over all airspace, exclusively determini...


  • So Chim, there's nothing to worry about?  I like your comment, because it's what I want to hear, but it seems like there is a lot of talk about drone regulation in all areas of the government (local, state and federal).  I agree that this particular "scoop" doesn't qualify as "news", more of a rumor.  But, I admit that I've put off buying RC/FPV and drone gear until feels safer.

    This is America!  The 51st state is Paranoia!

  • More Chicken Little hysteria (an epidemic on this site). This WSJ article is just throwaway space filler, using the click-on-me word de jour, in this case "drone." The authors are clearly ignorant and confused about UAVs and about the FAA's function and mission and they don't offer a single shred of documentation for their speculations. That they would even mention the FAA and "privacy concerns" in the same sentence disqualifies them from being taken seriously. Pure fishwrap by an outfit with a dismal, dismal track record. To apply the word "scoop" to something like this is ludicrous (but of course generates traffic here...). Yes, write your congresspeople if you still think that matters but don't base whatever you say on yellow journalistic diarrhea like this,  

  • Sorry, last comment.  I have posted and example of the letter I am sending to all the Texas Reps and Senators that I can.  I am also going to send them to key members of both parties.  I would get to writing those letters people, since apparently not enough people sent public comments before.

  • Are high school and college teachers flying commercially in teaching students how to fly and create aerial robotics?  Will they require instructor training?  What about JR or Futaba Sponsored Pilots?  They are flying commercially are they not?  The FAA is trying to interfere with something that has been around for decades.  One of the local RC Clubs that has been around longer than the nearly 40 years I have been alive has always been at an airport.  This is arcane and the one size fits all policy is ridiculous.  To say they did not see this coming is to ignore millions of AMA members and other organizations such as RCAPA that have been trying for nearly a decade to get the FAA to pay attention to what was already in existence.  

  • Dear US Representative Thornberry,

    I am writing as a constituent and small business owner in Amarillo, TX.  I am President of The Lankford Group and Aerial Vista.  We are an innovative research laboratory that has been working in the field of Agriculture Aerial Robotics since 2006.  We have worked for many companies throughout the nation and have operated with an impeccable safety record in all of those years.  I have been flying RC airplanes since the age of 9, when I purchased my first RC Plane in 1986 with my Hemphill County Stock Show earnings.  People have been flying model airplanes and ultralight aircraft safely since almost the beginning of aviation itself. I will include with this letter some examples of photography and survey work that we have performed for companies across the nation and especially here in Texas.  I have worked for real estate companies, developers, aircraft accident investigators, local media, energy companies, survey companies, farmers, city, state and federal government and government contractors among others.  We have worked on some of the most innovative communications and sensor systems in the world over the last decade.  The FAA is trying to use a one size fits all rules that ignore decades of safety and responsibility from modelers, business owners and innovators across the nation.  I write this brief resume to give an idea of the length of time that these businesses have already been in existence in the United States and in Texas

    The FAA is using arbitrary power to select winners and losers and to stifle innovation.  The Unmanned Systems Industry in the US that has been waiting for nearly a decade to be able to fly commercially and develop products to compete in the international market.  The US has fallen behind from a decade of inaction by the FAA.  When we have been supporting organizations like the Academy of Model Aeronautics for decades and supported forming the Remote Piloted Aerial Platform Association in 2006-2007.  We have been asking to be part of the conversation to form these rules.  It seems that the FAA has turned a deaf ear to millions of modelers, innovators and job creators across the nation and right here in Texas. 

    The FAA is interfering with companies and volunteers.  There is a great company in the southern part of the state that has been using unmanned systems for a decade to rescue people all over the world.  He has been called by local authorities to assist many a missing person case and the FAA is shutting him down without a pilot’s license.  I am not mentioning names because the search is easy to come up with and this letter is my own and does not speak for others without seeking their consent.  There are high school students, college students, and even sponsored model pilots that will have to have a pilot’s license to study, work with and promote unmanned systems.  All of these people have been working with these systems safely for decades.  If you google “drone accident” or “drone near miss”, almost 99% of the articles you find prior to March of 2014 in the US involve the military on foreign land. There are now hundreds of articles since March in the US, though millions of unmanned aircraft systems have operated safely for decades prior.  It reeks of propaganda from the FAA.  By contrast, in the US, I can and have built an airplane that weighs less than 254 pounds, which I flew legally without certification of the craft or my own ability to fly. 

    This is a big issue and can hardly be debated in a single page letter.  I am asking as a citizen, an innovator and a job creator to please work with us to form common sense legislation to prevent big government and the FAA from trampling on small businesses in Texas and across the nation.


    Toby Lankford

  • Tether!
  • Sad that the FAA looks like they are going to squander our tax dollars trying to take the 500 feet of private airspace that has always been legally owned by property owners.

    Sounds like they're trying to reverse a supreme court decision on our dime and invite 1000's of lawsuits that we'll have to pay to defend.

    See... United States v. Causby

    "if the landowner is to have full enjoyment of the land, he must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere."

  • Moderator

    That's not really a scoop, they have said several times all the requirements of the 333 exemptions plus ASTM F-38s standards (military grade manuals) will be required. The cost of those manuals will make getting a PPL look like chicken feed. Lets hope I am wrong the Hollywood approval might be a glimmer of hope on that front.

    The biggest issue now is that the current leaders of the FAA UAS office are leaving. One soon at the beginning of December and the other in January. This may reset the clock on the small rule NPRM (again)

    Lets not forget they pulled down AC 91-57 by accident in October its plainly on the cards. Outlets that keep refering to it are mistaken, the language of HR658 is key now. The RC/Unmanned community in the USA should have been paying more attention.  All the jumping up and down and its my right is coming home to roost.

    I always consider Simon Dale in the UK who set up an organisation to defend FPV, it started with big restrictions but slowly heights and distance are expanding. He has done an excellent job of moving things forward sensibly. 

    I've gone on a rant haven't I

    Best stop and make room for others. Would the US based membership being inducted into the small UAV Coalition make a difference or even be possible I wonder. Do members here need to stand behind one of the efforts?

    Oh and sUAS News knew about the SFAR 107 meeting earlier this month

    Looks like an inter-agency 107 meeting was held in D.C.

    Here is the reading of the tea leaves

    No Class A or B

    500 AGL

    Under 55lbs

    Private Pilot Ground School (Knowledge test)

    Some sort of certificate

    N #

    Look to the 333 Exemption requirements

    Expecting 100,000 comments

    None of this is confirmed and the information is from several sources!

    (For those new to the scene Patrick spoke of SFAR 107 back 2010)

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