On June 20, 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released the long-awaited final text for the Part 107 regulation that would integrate small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS)—drones weighing less than 55 pounds—into the national airspace on a large scale. This article will provide an overview of how to operate under the new rule and what the operating restrictions are under Part 107. It will then discuss where Section 333 will go, and conclude by reminding all drone operators to be ambassadors for our industry.
What do I need to do to fly under Part 107?
The two “entry barriers” to operating Part 107 are: (1) become a licensed remote operator, and (2) register your unmanned aerial vehicle(s) [UAV(s)]. There are two paths to becoming a remote pilot. Existing Part 61 pilots can log onto the FASSTeam website (available at faasafety.gov) to take the FAA’s online Part 107 course. First-time pilots will need to sit for a written exam at a Knowledge Testing Center. This written exam is anticipated to cover material related to UAS but also to general airspace rules and requirements, including classes of airspace and weather minimums. This test is expected to be available beginning August 29 and cost $150. A word of warning: People who fail the exam will be allowed to sit for it again, but there is a two-week waiting period. Would-be test takers should review the study material available on the FAA’s website to prepare for the exam. First-time pilots will also need to pass a TSA (Transportation Security Administration) background check before being issued their remote operator certificate.
To register your UAVs, visit registermyuas.faa.gov and create an account. Commercial operators will need to provide the serial number, make, and model, and pay a $5 fee for each of their aircraft. Hobbyist operators will not need to become a pilot and will only need to register themselves as operators on the FAA’s registration website.
What are my operating restrictions?
With no additional waivers or requests, operators:
- Must stay in Class G airspace (Class B–E operations are allowed if Air Traffic Control permission is obtained);
- Must keep the UAV within their line of sight;
- May not fly higher than 400 feet AGL (above ground level) or more than 400 feet higher than an existing structure if the UAV is within a 400-foot radius of an existing structure;
- Can only fly during the day or civil twilight;
- Must operate at less than 100 miles per hour;
- Must yield right of way to manned aircraft;
- May not fly their aircraft over people; and
- May not operate the aircraft from a moving vehicle.
The FAA, however, has indicated in the rule that each of these provisions can be waived to allow for increased flexibility for higher-risk operations. At the time this article was submitted for publication, the specific waiver request procedures are unknown, although we have it on good authority that a safety case will need to be made to submit with the waiver request. One thing to consider about these waiver requests is that the FAA will likely require a safety case for these higher-risk requests with identification of risks associated with the requested operation as well as ways to mitigate those risks. We are learning along with the FAA what industry “best practices” are. I encourage you to visit the FAA’s website (www.faa.gov/uas) for the most up-to-date information regarding Part 107 requirements.
In a few areas, including the new drone operator’s certificate, Part 107 is a significant improvement to Section 333. No visual observer is required, although one is recommended. No NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) is required, which gives operators signifi cant advantage to schedule operations at a moment’s notice. Additionally, the ability to go up to 400 feet above existing structures allows for inspections of radio and cell-phone towers, wind turbines, and tall buildings that can extend several hundred feet into
the air. This provision alone is a significant safety improvement because it will prevent the need for individuals to scale these structures to conduct inspections, which can be done instead at ground level.
What if I want to go beyond the limitations of Part 107?
If you are looking to operate in a manner that falls beyond the scope of Part 107 and not merely within a waivable section, you might want to consider submitting a Section 333 request. For example, Part 107 is only applicable to small UAVs—those weighing 55 pounds or less. Section 333 does not have such a limitation. The FAA has approved the Yamaha RMAX, which can weigh up to 141 pounds plus payload, for operations in a Section 333 exemption grant.
What if I have a pending Section 333 exemption request with the FAA?
The FAA has not—and might not—review each of the more than 12,000 exemption requests that it has received since opening the Section 333 program in May 2014. Of the pending requests, the FAA has announced that it will divide them into three tiers. The first tier will cover all exemption requests that would seek to operate entirely within the boundaries of Part 107—daytime operations within line of sight of the operator and within Class G airspace. These exemption requests will be closed out by the FAA because a request is not needed anymore to operate legally within the national airspace. It is estimated that the vast majority of the pending Section 333 exemption requests fall into this category. The second tier are those requests that fi t into one of the waivable sections of Part 107—folks looking to operate at night, beyond line of sight, or from a moving vehicle, for example. The FAA has announced that these types of requests will be rolled into Part 107 waiver requests and processed by the FAA. The third tier consists of requests that go beyond the provisions of Part 107, including those who want to operate UAVs weighing more than 55 pounds. The FAA will continue to process these requests under Section 333.
Remember to be a responsible operator!
I want to make one final note about being a responsible operator. All operators should remember that they are ambassadors of the drone industry to the public at large. There is a lot of fear and concern about drones, privacy, and safety in our country. Each time that you operate your drone, you have the ability potentially to educate those in the area in which you are operating about drone operations. If pedestrians see you taking appropriate safety precautions and being a respectful operator, they might develop a more positive view of the industry. If, however, you are acting carelessly or recklessly—or worse, endangering first responders trying to do their job—you will create a negative perception in the public that could cause harm to the industry at large. If you are new to the drone industry, there are resources to help you get started. Currently, there is no official FAA training program available to drone operators, and no hands-on training is required to obtain a remote pilot license. If you are a new operator, use discretion when deciding who to train with; there will be a rush to create UAV training programs that might or might not give you the skills that you need to be a safe operator. Make sure to check an organization’s resources and results; there will be programs that are worth your time and money, and there will be programs that are not. Consider finding a local chapter of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (www.modelaircraft.org) to train as a hobbyist first in a safe location to learn the skills that you will need to be a safe operator.
After years of blood, sweat, and tears put into creating the new Part 107 by industry professionals and the FAA, we are thrilled that many UAV operators now have an easier way to operate. This rule will allow the drone/UAV industry to continue to grow in the United States. I look forward to seeing the next chapter of drone operations in our country.
BY JEFFREY ANTONELLI
With a legal background in corporate outside counsel, civil litigation, insurance defense, and intellectual property and drone/UAV law, Jeffrey began flying radio controlled aircraft several years ago, which lead him to research new technologies, including first-person viewing (FPV) and drones.
Disclaimer: None of this article constitutes legal advice. Please consult an attorney if you have legal questions. Antonelli Law’s associate attorney Amelia Niemi assisted Jeffrey Antonelli with this article.