Overview of Proposed FAA Rules for Drones

Here is the text of the FAA’s Overview of Small UAS NPRM for Drones.  This is basically the executive summary of the FAA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.   The actual NPRM runs to almost 200 pages (195 to be exact).   We consider a review of this overview essential to anyone contemplating Drone Operations.

The text in BOLD is the original text of the rule.  Text in ITALICS represents our comments on the rules.  Our goal here is to clarify the rules for Drones, why these rules were made, and show how today’s current Airplane Regulations apply to Drones.

Operational Limitations

Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs. (25 kg).

Self Explanatory, must be under 55 lbs means most quadcopters on the market would be legal under the rule.

Visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only; the unmanned aircraft must remain within VLOS of the operator or visual observer.

This means keep the thing in your sight at all times.  You have to see the thing from the ground, and use you own eyes to keep it away from other objects.  Again fairly self explanatory.

At all times the small unmanned aircraft must remain close enough to the operator for the operator to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses. 

This is a pretty big one as no visual assist means you can’t use anything else other than your own eyes.  The reasoning behind this rule is because something like binoculars can severely limit your field of view, making it much more difficult to spot obstacles or other aircraft.

Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation.                                                                   

This is a big limitation for drone operators.   If you are filming say a concert, you cannot fly directly over the crowd.   A closer study of the proposed rule itself clears this up a bit.  You can fly over houses or people under shelter, but not random people who aren’t part of your operation. This rule, though severely limiting makes sense.   Would you want to be hit by a 55 lb bowling ball falling from 500 ft. with whirling propellers?   Most of us wouldn’t, hence this rule.

Daylight-only operations (official sunrise to official sunset, local time).                                                                                                                                 

Again self explanatory.  No Night Operations.   Period dot com, end of story.  Don’t fly at night.   Anyone who has night footage out there advertising their drone company better realize that having video depicting illegal activities on the internet is not a good idea.

Must yield right-of-way to other aircraft, manned or unmanned.  

Having drones give way to manned aircraft is a good idea, since drones are small and in many ways more maneuverable than manned aircraft. However, the unmanned portion of this rule does cause questions.   If two drones are flying, who gives way.   Normally the answer would be that the aircraft on the right has the right of way.   If approaching head on, you both turn right.  Right, right and right, right.  FAA Regulations for airplane right of way are list the following.  These right of way rules already apply to aircraft currently flying, and it is highly likely that this regulation will apply to drones as well.

Here is the original regulation in bold.

§91.113 Right-of-way rules: Except water operations.

(a) Inapplicability. This section does not apply to the operation of an aircraft on water.

(b) General. When weather conditions permit, regardless of whether an operation is conducted under instrument flight rules or visual flight rules, vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and avoid other aircraft. When a rule of this section gives another aircraft the right-of-way, the pilot shall give way to that aircraft and may not pass over, under, or ahead of it unless well clear.

(c) In distress. An aircraft in distress has the right-of-way over all other air traffic.

(d) Converging. When aircraft of the same category are converging at approximately the same altitude (except head-on, or nearly so), the aircraft to the other’s right has the right-of-way. If the aircraft are of different categories—

(1) A balloon has the right-of-way over any other category of aircraft;

(2) A glider has the right-of-way over an airship, powered parachute, weight-shift-control aircraft, airplane, or rotorcraft.

(3) An airship has the right-of-way over a powered parachute, weight-shift-control aircraft, airplane, or rotorcraft.

However, an aircraft towing or refueling other aircraft has the right-of-way over all other engine-driven aircraft.

(e) Approaching head-on. When aircraft are approaching each other head-on, or nearly so, each pilot of each aircraft shall alter course to the right.

(f) Overtaking. Each aircraft that is being overtaken has the right-of-way and each pilot of an overtaking aircraft shall alter course to the right to pass well clear.

(g) Landing. Aircraft, while on final approach to land or while landing, have the right-of-way over other aircraft in flight or operating on the surface, except that they shall not take advantage of this rule to force an aircraft off the runway surface which has already landed and is attempting to make way for an aircraft on final approach. When two or more aircraft are approaching an airport for the purpose of landing, the aircraft at the lower altitude has the right-of-way, but it shall not take advantage of this rule to cut in front of another which is on final approach to land or to overtake that aircraft.

[Doc. No. 18334, 54 FR 34294, Aug. 18, 1989, as amended by Amdt. 91-282, 69 FR 44880, July 27, 2004]

As you can see it makes sense to have some understanding of current airplane rules, especially because they will certainly apply to drone operations.   Also, you have to love the final part of right of way.  Pilots are a competitive breed and the “shall not take advantage of this rule to cut in front of another…” is a classic understanding of how pilots think and fly.

May use visual observer (VO) but not required.

This is a good rule as well, depending on the complexity of your operation. You may or may not need an observer, but in many cases it would be a good idea.   Besides, two people usually do perform better than one, assuming basic competency for both.

First-person view camera cannot satisfy “see-and-avoid” requirement but can be used as long as requirement is satisfied in other ways.

This is an interesting rule, as from what I recall the original version of the rule prohibited First Person View (FPV).  So as it stands now, you can use FPV, but not as your primary means of avoiding traffic.  Hence, unassisted line of sight, Daylight only, and Visual Flight Rules only for Drone Operations.  It is a good thing that the FAA is allowing the use FPV in flying.  However, it also makes sense to know how to fly a drone without FPV first, so you can still safely control your craft in case you lose your video signal.  This is a case where having an observer would be highly useful.

Maximum airspeed of 100 mph (87 knots).

Having a speed limit for drones makes sense, as even airplanes have a speed limit of under 250 knots under 10000 feet, and 200 knots in tower controlled airspace.  Besides, who would want to even try and control a drone flying down low at Mach 1  via line of sight only.

Maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level.

This rule makes quite a bit of sense as most manned aircraft do operate higher than 500 ft AGL.  Note here, AGL and MSL altitudes are two totally different things.  AGL means above ground level, your actual height above the Ground.  MSL means Mean Sea Level as in your height above sea level.  So if you are flying a drone in Colorado with a terrain elevation of greater than a mile, you are already are at over 5280 ft MSL while standing on the ground.  Those of you who live in high terrain states can still fly drones, just not higher than 500 feet above the ground.  Keep in mind however, that high altitude terrain and hot conditions can and will cause a significant decrease in the performance of most aircraft.

Minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from control station.

This is a basic Visual Flight Rules requirement for most types of airspace. Quite frankly 3 miles isn’t much visibility, in the air or ground.  So having this rule makes quite a bit of sense.

No operations are allowed in Class A (18,000 feet & above) airspace.

Class A Airspace is Airliner Territory.  Nobody their right mind would want to fly a drone there.  Anyone who even tries to operate at that altitude deserves the consequences they’ll get from the FAA.

Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are allowed with the required ATC permission.

For those of you who don’t know, Airapace permissions are progressively harder depending on the type of Airspace you are talking about.  Class B airspace are the busiest airports in the nation, think JFK in New York, O’Hare in Chicago, DFW in Dallas.  You have to have a specific clearance stating “Cleared to Enter Class Bravo” from Air Traffic Control to even fly into there in Airplane world, as well as Ground and Flight Training for a SPECIFIC Class B Airport as a Student Pilot and a minimum of a Private Pilot License if you are a regular airplane pilot.  Even then, there are a list of airports where Private Pilot operations are prohibited (such as the airports mentioned above).  Even though Class B Drone Operations will be allowed, it probably isn’t the best idea to fly drones near such airports, especially without required permission. 

Class C airspace is slightly less crowded, think midsize city airports full of commuter traffic. Class D Airspace is the lowest level of towered airport. For Class C and D airports, you must establish two-way radio communications with ATC prior to entering such airspace. Two-way radio communications mean you must hear the controller announce your call sign over the air. Once they even mention your call sign, you are good to go, even if they tell you to stand by because they are busy.

Class E Airspace in most cases is airspace anywhere above 1200 ft AGL, 700 AGL near small untowered airports, and in some cases from the surface up close to certain airports. Class E is considered controlled because Instrument Flight Rules traffic can operate there, and since such aircraft aren’t flying visually, the airspace is considered controlled.

For Drone Operators, it would be a good idea to have a Handheld radio if operating anywhere near a towered airport, so you can announce your position to ATC, gain the required permissions, and to listen in to other traffic operating there.  You will also be serving the flying community well by being a known part of the National Airspace System.  Though this is a lot of information to digest, please understand that airspace considerations is probably one of the most important things for drone operators to understand if they want to fly safely and legally.

Operations in Class G airspace are allowed without ATC permission.

Class G airspace is the least restrictive type of airspace in the US.  Class G airspace usually extends from the ground up to 1200 ft AGL, and 700 ft AGL from small untowered airports.  You don’t need to even have a radio to operate in Class G airspace, but again, keep in mind that if you are flying a drone near a small untowered airport, it would be good practice to announce your position to airplanes operating there.

No person may act as an operator or VO for more than one unmanned aircraft operation at one time.

This rule makes sense as who in their right mind would try to fly multiple drones at the same time.   Some of you may like to juggle things, but juggling multiple drones isn’t exactly a safe practice.

No careless or reckless operations.

The FAA rule for Careless and Reckless operation is as follows. I like to call this the lucky 13 rule.

§91.13 Careless or reckless operation.

(a) Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

(b) Aircraft operations other than for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft, other than for the purpose of air navigation, on any part of the surface of an airport used by aircraft for air commerce (including areas used by those aircraft for receiving or discharging persons or cargo), in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

Sounds pretty vague doesn’t it.  What exactly is careless or reckless operation. Some of this would be fairly obvious, buzzing people or houses, doing hardcore aerobatics down low, or flying in an unsafe manner. However, Careless or Reckless operation is also anything the FAA believes is Careless or Reckless.  This is a catchall rule that can and will be used by the FAA to issue a violation to anyone they deem to be an unsafe operator.  Lets say someone does something stupid, and the FAA can’t issue a specific violation.  However, they certainly can cite someone for being Careless and Reckless..  You have to love how they split this rule into Part A and B, for flying and operating airplane on the ground.

Requires preflight inspection by the operator.

A preflight inspection isn’t just a good idea, it is required by law in airplane world.  People have been known to be cited for Careless and Reckless operation for not performing a proper preflight.

From Current Airplane Regulations.

§91.103 Preflight action.

Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. This information must include—

(a) For a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an airport, weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements, alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed, and any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC;

(b) For any flight, runway lengths at airports of intended use, and the following takeoff and landing distance information:

(1) For civil aircraft for which an approved Airplane or Rotorcraft Flight Manual containing takeoff and landing distance data is required, the takeoff and landing distance data contained therein; and

(2) For civil aircraft other than those specified in paragraph (b)(1) of this section, other reliable information appropriate to the aircraft, relating to aircraft performance under expected values of airport elevation and runway slope, aircraft gross weight, and wind and temperature.

Note the first sentence in the rule above. Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with ALL AVAILABLE INFORMATION concerning that flight.  This is another catchall. It is your responsibility as a pilot of an airplane or drone to perform a proper preflight to ensure your equipment is in safe operating condition.  Failure to do so can be considered Careless or Reckless operation. In addition the fuel requirements for a flight also applies to Drones.   If your drone crashes because of insufficent battery life, guess who’s fault that is?  Finally, it is up to you to determine whether the performance of your drone is sufficient to fly safely in your operating area.

A person may not operate a small unmanned aircraft if he or she knows or has reason to know of any physical or mental condition that would interfere with the safe operation of a small UAS.

If you are blind, sick, mentally ill, or intoxicated, you shouldn’t fly anything.   For alcoholic beverages, the FAA rule is as follows.

§91.17 Alcohol or drugs.

(a) No person may act or attempt to act as a crewmember of a civil aircraft—

(1) Within 8 hours after the consumption of any alcoholic beverage;

(2) While under the influence of alcohol;

(3) While using any drug that affects the person’s faculties in any way contrary to safety; or

(4) While having an alcohol concentration of 0.04 or greater in a blood or breath specimen. Alcohol concentration means grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood or grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath.

We call this the 8-hour from Bottle to Throttle Rule.  Seriously, who in their right mind would try to fly anything while intoxicated or impaired in any way.  However, at this time the FAA does not seem to have an Aviation Medical certificate requirement for drone operators.  This is a common sense approach, let people ensure they are in good health, while following making sure they are in a condition to be a safe operator.

Proposes a microUAS option that would allow operations in Class G airspace, over people not involved in the operation, provided the operator certifies he or she has the requisite aeronautical knowledge to perform the operation.

The microUAS option is an interesting wrinkle to the current proposed rules.  Small Quadcopters such as a DJI Phantom weighing under 4.4 lbs would be considered a microUAS.  Under microUAS rules, the restrictions on operating over crowds would be waived, however some proof of the operator’s aeronautical knowledge would be required.  This rule is still in its earliest phase of development, and it will be interesting to see what will happen with it.

Pilots of a small UAS would be considered “operators”. Operator Certification and Responsibilities

Operators would be required to:

  • Pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.
  • Be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration.
  • Obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating (like existing pilot airman certificates, never expires).
  • Pass a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test every 24 months.
  • Be at least 17 years old.
  • Make available to the FAA, upon request, the small UAS for inspection or testing, and any associated documents/records required to be kept under the proposed rule.
  • Report an accident to the FAA within 10 days of any operation that results in injury or property damage.
  • Conduct a preflight inspection, to include specific aircraft and control station systems checks, to ensure the small UAS is safe for operation.

These parts of the FAA’s proposed rule make lots of sense. They are based on Airplane Pilot rules, and by becoming an operator a Drone Pilot will be considered to be a Pilot. You will have a license that never expires, be required to take recurrent training every 24 months just like a pilot, and be subject to verification of your credentials, again just like a pilot. Having a TSA background check is another thing required of pilots, and is a good idea in today’s world. The accident reporting requirements are also identical to manned Airplane Rules.

FAA airworthiness certification not required. 

  • However, operator must maintain a small UAS in condition for safe operation and prior to flight must inspect the UAS to ensure that it is in a condition for safe operation.
  • Aircraft Registration required (same requirements that apply to all other aircraft). 
  • Aircraft markings required (Same Requirements for other aircraft).  If aircraft is too small to display markings in standard size, then the aircraft simply needs to display markings in the largest practicable manner.

The requirement for a preflight inspection again is a requirement for all pilots under FAA Part 91.103. The registration requirement is also identical to airplanes. Airplanes must have registration numbers, just as cars must have license plates. Try flying a plane or driving a car without one, and see how far you’ll get.  Drone registration will ensure there will be some way of tracking who flies what, in case someone does something dangerous or stupid.

Distinctive marking will help everyone know who is flying what.  Airplane requirements for registration numbers state the numbers must be at least 12 inches high.  Since that is impossible for most small drones, the requirement simply states the markings must be as large as possible.

Proposed rule would not apply to model aircraft that satisfy all of the Model Aircraft criteria specified in Section 336 of Public Law 112-95.

Recreational Model airplane flyers have their own rules. It is not our place to cover them here.

The proposed rule would codify the FAA’s enforcement authority in part 101 by prohibiting model aircraft operators from endangering the safety of the NAS.

This rule makes sure the Model Airplane Flyers are subject to the same rules as everyone else who flies.

All this sounds incredibly complicated, doesn’t it.  Aviation is a wonderful career, but it is an occupation extremely unforgiving of error.  The consequences can be severe, both legally and personally.  It is often said by Pilots that the Rules were written in Blood.   Believe it or not, learning to fly isn’t the hardest part of becoming a pilot.  Learning the rules is. 

As a Pilot of anything, airplane or drone, you are responsible for learning the rules, knowing them, and operating by them.  Failure to do so could mean the end of your flying career.