FAA Sets First Commercial Drone Rules: No Package Delivery Yet

Commercial drones can fly up to 400 feet in altitude at speeds up to 100 mph and require a remote pilot certificate, not a pilot's license.

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The Federal Aviation Administration's long-awaited commercial drone rules are now finalized to allow businesses to use drones weighing up to 55 pounds for aerial photography, agricultural work, construction surveying and other for-hire uses, but related rules that could allow package delivery are still not ready.

The FAA's new regulations, formally called the Part 107 Rule, will now allow businesses to use small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones, to expand their operations and develop new technologies while operating in the nation's airspace, according to the agency.

The Part 107 Rule will take effect in August, 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register, which could happen late this week or early next week, an FAA spokesman told eWEEK.

In the last few years, while the FAA was working to create final operating rules for commercial drones, companies were able to apply for "exemptions" under FAA Section 333 rules that allowed them to perform work using drones, even as the rules were being written and before they were finalized. Those exemptions initially only permitted drones to be operated by people with a full pilot's license, but that requirement was later rolled back to allow commercial drone flights by operators holding a sport or recreational pilot's license. Almost 2,000 such exemptions were approved by the FAA while the rules were being drafted, allowing businesses to begin operations with drones as the technology emerged.

Under the new rules, commercial drone operators will now have to have a remote aircraft certificate with a small UAS rating, or be supervised by someone holding such a certificate, instead of needing a higher-level pilot's license, according to the FAA. A prospective drone pilot who wants to get a remote pilot certificate must either pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center or have an existing non-student Part 61 pilot certificate. Security checks of all certificate applicants will be conducted by the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) before a certificate is issued.

The new rules also require that a drone operator maintain visual sight with the device and that it can only be flown at altitudes up to 400 feet and at a maximum speed of 100 mph, the rules state.

"With this new rule, we are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA's mission to protect public safety," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. "But this is just our first step. We're already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations."

The new FAA rules could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years, according to industry estimates provided by the FAA.

The new regulations, however, still don't address long-standing demands from companies including Amazon and Walmart, which are eager to begin package deliveries using drones to serve their online customers. The drone deliveries are seen by the companies as making package deliveries faster and cheaper.

The FAA is continuing to review drone delivery proposals and prospective rules and is gaining data through its Pathfinder program, which involves three companies that are using drones for experimental long-range operations and other use cases, the spokesman told eWEEK.

"We're doing research in these areas … but there's still a lot of research to be done," the spokesman said. "We can't speculate on when that will be ready."

A process will also be put into place to allow commercial drone operators to seek waivers from the FAA if they require operations that are higher than 400 feet or faster than 100 mph with their drones, the spokesman said. The waiver process will be available through an online portal.

In October 2015, the FAA was harshly criticized by a coalition of 29 aviation groups for failing to meet a September 2015 congressional deadline to get rules in place for commercial drone use in the United States, according to an earlier eWEEK report. In 2012, the FAA was told by Congress to create and integrate commercial drone rules with FAA rules for private and commercial airspace so that they could operate safely in the skies together.