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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  • I love to see the glass half full!

  • @GaryM

    They did that a long time ago:


    As well as not being UAPO.  It's UASIO, AFS-80.

    On the bright side, there's lots of drone activity in Somalia....   ;-)

  • Moderator

    That's interesting the UAPO better start changing the paperwork, that might take a while.

  • Just an aside guys, the possibly-soon-to-be-released rule is not SFAR 107.  S is for "Special". SFAR 107 is the one that says don't fly over Somalia:


    The sUAS rule will be part of regular old 14 Code of Federal Regulations, just like all the other FARS, so, assuming it is numbered 107, should be called 14 CFR 107, or to abbreviate like most aviation regs "Part 107."

    FDC NOTAM 7/7201 (SFAR 107) Prohibition Against Certain Flights Within the Territory and Airspace o…
  • Thanks for the shout out Chim.  I'm sorry to be an example of the wrong response to this sort of thing.  My situation is probably different from most people in the hobby.  To get the setup I want (I have a plane and radio) would mean using almost all of my discretionary spending for the year.  If I had more money (and time) I probably would be less hesitant.  I'm afraid for me, in this case, it comes down to cost vrs. risk.  I won't risk all of my fun money if there is a chance it will get confiscated or get me fined.

    I think it's a huge mistake for the FAA to over-regulate drones.  This is another area where the US could fall way behind because of restrictive regulation.  I also think something needs to be done about the idiots who fly in restricted areas.  Then again the ambiguity of the rules and best practices will lead to trouble.  Look at Trappy's trip to the US national parks.  He went all over the country and got some great footage with the encouragement of the rangers at every location, until the Grand Canyon, where he was arrested.

    It is complicated and political and I'll do my part by writing to my representatives and advocating for the hobby.  I will not however, spend all of my money on a really cool and expensive toy only to have my "Big Brother" take it away.

  • @Mike: The WSJ, of all things, is not going to be leaking something intended to benefit the little guy. The benefit here is to the heavyweight industrial drone makers (like Northrup, Boeing and such, along with a smattering of commercial helicopter services etc.) who view our sophisticated little drones as threats to their dominance of a potentially  hugely profitable arena. If this is a leak (as opposed to drunken bar chatter while trying to beat a deadline for filler, which is more likely), it's a leak intended to keep people from buying or manufacturing/marketing small "serious" drones out of fear that they'll be shot down before they get off the ground, so to say.  See a post on the previous page by a fellow scared off by this sort of thing. Don't forget, the FAA has many sides and being a shill and propagandist for whoever is in their good graces is one of them.   

  • Here's an interesting take on the WSJ article:

    "To be fair, the WSJ story has the hallmarks of a leak from drone proponents, quite likely one intended to help organize opposition to the FAA rules. We may not be getting the whole story, and we won’t know for sure until the FAA discloses its final decision."


  • @Gary  Why not try to make a reasonable determination of what rights we should assert and stick to?  FAA flights must stay 500 feet AGL and 500 feet above any structures.  Since 500+ feet is public airspace we should assert that <500 feet is 100% private airspace not subject to any sort of gov. regulation.

    Some reasonable rules would be fine.  Most areas say you cannot build within 10 feet of your property line.  IMHO that is reasonable.  So assuming you were flying a quad at 500 feet and had a surefire kill switch... we should be able to operate up to 500 feet as long as we stayed a reasonable distance from the property line so that falling drones could not impact others.  I'd say that a 20% fall angle would be more than sufficient.  So at 500 feet you would stay 100 feet from the property line.  At 20 feet you would stay 4 feet from the property line, or maybe have a 10 foot minimum.

    If we came up with common sense rules that would prevent any possibility of ever straying from 100% private airspace, then how could there be any justification to further regulate?

    @Doug  As a matter of common law and common sense things are legally divided up as to who owns and has control of them.  I can use my drone pretty much any height above my property in connection with my enjoyment of the land.  Since the FAA has clearly laid claim to 500+ feet, it stands to reason that I own below 500 feet.  That is part of the "exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere," that has been determined by the supreme court.

    I would, and people used to, own "up to the heavens" above their properly.  In a sort of an "eminent domain" sort of way 500+ feet has been taken away as a public air highway.  Just exactly the same way they take land for regular highways.  So I don't see where you would think that you've somehow legally lost ownership of the land/airspace that has NOT been taken from you by the gov..

    We should stick with the highway analogy, and stick to our rights.  If the FAA wants another 100 feet as some sort of "ditch" (safety margin) between the highway and your private property, that is not entirely unreasonable and should certainly be on the table for negotiations.  But in no way shape or form should we just roll over and let them take our private property all the way to the ground.

    Sticking with the highway analogy... You need a license plate, driver's license, insurance, registration, tags, etc. to drive on PUBLIC roads.  You do NOT need any of that to drive on your own private property.

    If I put a 6 year old in a cobbled together monster truck with no seat belts and let him tear around on my private property, that would most likely be child endangerment, but they could not cite me for driver's license, tags, insurance, etc..

    Exactly the same thing applies to flying drones.  If I'm recklessly endangering people on my property, it's still a crime.  But they can't require me to be licensed, insured, or obey any rules that don't have a clear basis in preventing endangerment of others.

    The only other way I see to look at this is that the gov. owns and controls everything no matter who owns it and can make any arbitrary rules they want, no matter how much it interferes with your use of your own private property.  If you cede those rights, then you cede everything to the gov..  So it's important to draw a line in the sand and assert your rights.


  • The Sky is falling - - Still.

    No surprise here, regardless of veracity, the FAA has yet to behave in a remotely reasonable fashion.

    Reacting to the blunder of the moment seems to just feed the frenzy and doesn't do much to help.

    What would help is if "we" as a group could start coming up with some reasonable ideas to put forward.

    Possibly based at least in part on some of the more enlightened "rules", plans and acceptable practices already put in place in many countries.

    In the US we seem to have gotten a Big Brother response from our rule makers which seems determined to basically ban reasonable civilian "drone" use.

    It seems unlikely that this stance will persist no matter how many back room deals are made.

    In the rest of the world at least some countries are embracing reasonable and enlightened practices which will allow the true value of civilian drone use to be obvious to all.

    The days when you could control dissemination of information are past.

    And when the public sees how complicit their own government and in particular the FAA have been in cheating them out of those benefits, their Draconian policies are not likely to stand for long.

  • Developer

    Lack of rules is one thing, but when the rules and regulations aren't making sense, people find ways to work around them. http://hosted2.ap.org/OHWIN/8494b6914ff248458c760d14dcaee4e5/Articl...

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