The long awaited day has finally arrived.  Earlier today, the FAA held a press conference where they announced the release of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for small UAS.

The FAA took the highly unusual step of making this announcement on a Sunday in the middle of a three day weekend.  As we reported yesterday, a copy of the FAA’s 70 page cost/benefit analysis was inadvertently leaked to the public and had started to get picked up by the media.  This leak apparently goaded the DOT into action.

Most members of the public assumed that the NPRM would cover the “hot button” issue of setting piloting requirements for UAS flight.  As we reported yesterday, that was correct, and there will be a new UAS Operators Certificate that will be simpler to get than an existing private pilot license.  The public summary of the NPRM, which was also released this morning, lists a number of additional limitations on operators, including:

  1. Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs. (25 kg).
  2. Visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only; the unmanned aircraft must remain within VLOS of the operator or visual observer.
  3. 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.
  4. Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation.
  5. Daylight-only operations (official sunrise to official sunset, local time).
  6. Must yield right-of-way to other aircraft, manned or unmanned.
  7. May use visual observer (VO) but not required.
  8. First-person view camera cannot satisfy “see-and-avoid” requirement but can be used as long as requirement is satisfied in other ways.
  9. Maximum airspeed of 100 mph (87 knots).
  10. Maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level.
  11. Minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from control station.
  12. No operations are allowed in Class A (18,000 feet & above) airspace.
  13. Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are allowed with the required ATC permission.
  14. operations in Class G airspace are allowed without ATC permission
  15. No person may act as an operator or VO for more than one unmanned aircraft operation at one time.
  16. No careless or reckless operations.
  17. Requires preflight inspection by the operator.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.

Of course, nothing in the NPRM becomes an actual, enforceable rule until the rulemaking process is complete.  The next step in that process is the “notice and comment” period.  Up until that time, anyone who has an opinion about any aspect of the proposed rule can go to as soon as the full rule is posted , click on the “Comment Now” button, and state their opinion, either pro or con.  Commenters can also use the opportunity to propose alternatives to any of the draft rules and state why their alternative is superior.

At the close of the comment period, the FAA will review all of the public comments and consider what changes, if any, should be made to the proposed rule before it becomes final.  The FAA will also draft responses to the comments and explain the reasoning behind any changes made or why the comment was rejected.

One thing absolutely clear is that this will be a time consuming process.  When the FAA issued its Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft over the summer, the comment period had to be extended due to public demand, and the FAA received over 35,000 comments.  As of today, the FAA still has not completed its analysis of those comments, and it is not clear how much longer that review will take.  Plane-ly Spoken would not be surprised if the NPRM generates over 100,000 comments.  Given the size and complexity of the tasks still ahead, the DOT Inspector General has indicated that the final rule probably will not be issued until late 2016 or early 2017.

For those of you that are serious about the future of UAS, take the time to submit thoughtful comments that can move the process forward.  Until then, people should be aware that the FAA is still accepting and processing Section 333 Petitions for Exemptions for those companies that do not want to wait until the rules become final two years from now.  At this point, there is nothing to be gained by waiting.

(Originally posted February 15, 2015)