In an unusual Sunday morning press conference, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta released the details of the proposed rule, which affects RPAs that weigh less than 55 pounds and are flown for non-recreational purposes.
They also would be limited to daylight, line-of-sight operations with a least three statute miles visibility at speeds of less than 100 mph and altitudes below 500 feet. The FAA is asking for comments on whether the rules should permit operations beyond line of sight, and if so, what the appropriate limits should be.
The RPAs would not be allowed to operate over people, except those involved in the flight. They would be required to remain outside of Class A airspace and at least 500 feet below clouds and 2,000 feet from them horizontally. Operations in Class B, C, and D airspace, as well as within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of Class E airspace, can be allowed with prior permission from air traffic control.
The RPA operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property. Operators also must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the RPA.
The proposed rule maintains the existing prohibition against operating in a careless or reckless manner, FAA officials noted. It also would bar an operator from allowing any object to be dropped from the RPA.
The NPRM also sets certification requirements for RPA operators, requiring them to be at least 17 years old, pass an FAA-administered knowledge test every two years, and obtain an FAA-issued operator certificate with a small UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) rating. Operators will not be required to have a private pilot certificate or a medical certificate.
While the FAA will not require the aircraft themselves to be certified, it will require them to obtain an FAA registration and display an N-number.
Operators must also conduct preflight safety inspections before each flight that includes checking the communications link between the control station and the RPA. Small RPA with FAA-certificated components also could be subject to agency airworthiness directives.
“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” noted FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”
The proposed rule also includes extensive discussion of the possibility of an additional, more flexible framework for “micro” RPAs under 4.4 pounds. FAA officials are asking the public to comment on this possible classification to determine whether it should include this option as part of a final rule.
The FAA is also asking for comment about how the agency can further leverage the RPA test site program and an upcoming UAS Center of Excellence to further spur innovation at “innovation zones.”
The new rules are a “good first step,” according to officials with the National Business Aviation Association.
“NBAA has long maintained that any plan to integrate UAS into the National Airspace System be thoughtful, deliberative and focused on safety,” said Bob Lamond, NBAA director, air traffic services and infrastructure. “The FAA has taken a good first step in releasing these initial guidelines to provide a much-needed regulatory structure for these operations.”
The proposed rules address many of the concerns raised by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), according to AOPA President Mark Baker.
“Safety is our biggest concern when it comes to integrating unmanned aircraft into the airspace system,” he said. “Clear guidance for UAS operations is needed to protect pilots and passengers. We’re pleased that the FAA is moving the rulemaking process forward, but this really can’t happen fast enough.”
In December 2014, Baker asked the U.S. House of Representatives Aviation Subcommittee to encourage the FAA to expedite the rule governing commercial UAS operations, as well as “address the reckless and careless operation of recreational UAS.” In 2014, the FAA received nearly 200 pilot reports describing encounters with unmanned aircraft, according to AOPA officials.
While the NPRM does not address recreational UAS operations, AOPA has asked the FAA to issue “clear and definitive guidance” for recreational operators, encourage manufacturers to include information on FAA guidance in their packaging materials, work with AOPA and remote control aircraft groups to conduct educational outreach, and publish guidance to help pilots file timely reports of reckless UAS operations.
The new rules do not apply to model aircraft. They also would not apply to government aircraft operations, according to FAA officials, “because we expect that these government operations will typically continue to operate under the Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) process unless the operator opts to comply with and fly under the new small UAS regulations.”
The proposed rules do not address privacy concerns with the use of RPAs. The FAA noted that those issues will be addressed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
The White House issued a presidential memorandum dealing with privacy issues shortly before the FAA’s Feb. 15 announcement. The memo requires federal agencies to make their policies and procedures consistent with limits on data collection and use, as well as the retention and dissemination of information collected by RPAs. It also gives the NTIA and Commerce Department 90 days to create a “framework for privacy, accountability and transparency.”
The public will be able to comment on the proposed regulation for 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register, which can be found at Regulations.gov.
FAA officials add that the current unmanned aircraft rules remain in place until the agency implements a final new rule.