FAA Final Rule on Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems

On June 21, 2016 the FAA issued its final rule on small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) codified at 14 C.F.R. Parts 107 (Parts 21, 43, 61, 91, 101, 107, 119, 133, and 183 are also impacted).  The primary effect of this final rule is that commercial use of qualified small UAS that are operated in accordance with the sUAS rule will no longer require special airworthiness certificates, section 333 exemptions, or certificates of waiver or authorization (COAs).

The sUAS rule:

  • Classifies “small” UAS
    • Weigh less than 55 lbs or 25 kg
    • Be in safe operating condition
    • FAA airworthiness certification is not required
    • Excludes “model” aircraft that satisfy certain criteria
  • Establishes requirements for certification necessary to operate sUAS, including, but not limited to:
    • Hold a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate with a small UAS rating OR be under the direct supervision of a person who holds a remote pilot certificate
      • Either:
        • Pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center; OR
        • Hold a part 61 pilot certificate other than student pilot, complete a flight review within the previous 24 months, and complete a small UAS online training course provided by the FAA.
      • Be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration.
      • Be at least 16 years old.
  •  Establishes operating limits for sUAS in the National Air Space, including, but not limited to:
    • Operator must conduct preflight inspection
    • Operator must maintain visual line of sight (VLoS) at all times
      • VLoS is established based on a person’s natural vision (i.e. sight via binoculars or similar device does not qualify)
      • The primary purpose for the VLoS requirement is that the operator can see and avoid collisions with other aircraft
    • sUAS may only be operated during daylight hours
    • sUAS may not exceed 400 feet above ground unless they are within 400 feet of a building or structure
    • There must be a minimum weather visibility of at least 3 miles measured at a control station
    • sUAS may carry a load under certain circumstances
    • May not operate over any persons not directly participating in the operation
      • This reduces privacy concerns
  • Establishes a process to seek a waiver of many of these restrictions
    • Waiver process can accommodate new technologies and unique operational circumstances

The FAA cites the following possible uses for operation of sUAS, including, but not limited to:

  • Crop monitoring/inspection;
  • Research and development;
  • Educational/academic uses;
  • Power-line/pipeline inspection in hilly or mountainous terrain;
  • Antenna inspections;
  • Aiding certain rescue operations;
  • Bridge inspections;
  • Aerial photography; and
  • Wildlife nesting area evaluations.

The final rule is 624 pages.  The “guidance” document published by the FAA is 53 pages.

It is important to remember that even if one operates sUAS in accordance with the FAA’s final rule, sUAS operation still poses liability concerns such as violation of privacy, trespass, or liability for damage to person or property.  Any entity or person that plans to begin operating a sUAS should carefully consider these risks and understand how to mitigate them.

Erin Borissov is a partner in the law firm of Parr Richey Obremskey Frandsen & Patterson, LLP with offices in Indianapolis and Lebanon, Indiana. She advises utilities and business clients in the areas of utility regulatory law, electric cooperative law, easement and right-of-way law, commercial transactions, corporate governance, and corporate compliance.

The statements contained herein are matters of opinion and general information only and are not to be considered legal advice and should not be construed to form an attorney-client relationship. If you have any questions regarding this article, please contact an attorney.