Unmanned aircraft operators were given an outline for flight standards Feb. 15 when the Federal Aviation Administration released its proposed rules for drone flights.
The draft regulations are a major step toward integrating widespread commercial use of unmanned aircraft in the national airspace.
Also known as UAS, unmanned aircraft system flights have been approved by the agency for several years on a case-by-case basis.
The Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking expands on the commonalities of approved flights. Currently, UAS flights are allowed only by nonprofit ventures for research and educational purposes and a very select group of commercial entities, primarily film companies.
“Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace and this milestone allows federal regulations and the use of our national airspace to evolve to safely accommodate innovation,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a formal statement.
Common UAS would be limited to craft less than 55 pounds with flights restricted to line-of-sight operations, constraints found in most certificates of authorization, or COAs, issued by the FAA for flights today.
ConocoPhillips obtained the first commercial COA in 2013 for research in the Chukchi Sea and BP got the first overland commercial authorization from the FAA in May 2014 for North Slope surveillance.
“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules. We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a release.
Congress mandated the FAA to draft regulations for commercial UAS flights by the end of this year when it passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act in 2012.
UAS pilots, referred to as operators by the FAA, would have to pass an agency aeronautical knowledge test and be at least 17 years of age.
Subsequent recurring operator tests would be required every two years.
After vetting by the Transportation Security Administration, operators would receive a permanent certificate with a “small UAS rating,” much the same as the existing certifications pilots receive, according to the proposed rule.
While many UAS guidelines such as size and flight distance regulations were predictable based on standards found in most COAs, requirements for operators were a big unknown in the industry.
Alaska Air Carriers Association Executive Director Jane Dale said in an interview that the regulation plan answers a lot of questions raised by members of her organization, primarily relating to flight restrictions and UAS operator certification.
Alaska’s aviators have expressed wide concern about UAS operator knowledge of the protocols when flying in the national airspace. The draft regulations provide a good starting point, Dale said, and mostly address those concerns.
She is also pleased with the daytime and line-of-sight restrictions to UAS flights.
Dale said the AACA would be submitting comments to the FAA. The FAA is taking public comments on the draft regulation for 60 days through the Federal Register.
John Parker is president of Kenai-based Integrated Robotics Imaging Systems and a member of the Legislature’s UAS Task Force. He said he is happy with the proposal and that the FAA is requesting comments on appropriate subjects.
Parker doesn’t believe requiring a full private pilot’s license to fly a UAS is practical because of stark operation differences.
“It’s just a totally different flight dynamic,” he said.
However, Parker said he will suggest the requirement for a full ground school in addition to the proposed certification test, which as he understands it will be similar to the test taken for a private pilot’s license with added material relating specifically to flying UAS in or near terminal airspace.
Airworthiness certification would not be required under the proposed rule, a departure from most COAs. However, UAS will likely need to be registered by the FAA similar to general aviation aircraft.