On June 21, 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its long awaited amendments to regulations for the operation of small unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”), defined as aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds. The new UAS rules are remarkable because rather than focusing on safety enhancements as the FAA has traditionally done, the FAA focused instead upon “social benefits” that will result from promoting growth of the nascent unmanned aircraft industry, while easing compliance requirements and costs for operating companies and designated pilots. Under this new cost-benefit analysis, the FAA estimates net “social benefits” will range between $733 Million and $9 Billion for the next five years through 2020. And the UAS industry estimates that the new FAA rules could generate more than 100,000 new jobs and $82 billion in economic activity over the next decade.1 The new rules also establish a mechanism for the UAS industry to seek a wide range of waivers from the newly established general operating restrictions. The new rules will be effective on August 26, 2016, 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. Until the new rules are effective, commercial drone operators will continue operating under prior exemption grants.

The new rules implement a range of operating restrictions for UAS, including with regard to speed, altitude and piloting of the aircraft. Under the new rules, small UAS will only be permitted to operate either (a) in daylight or (b) during twilight, but only if the drone has anti-collision lights. In addition, the drone’s speed may not exceed 100 mph. The rules also impose limitations on flying altitudes, limiting drones to an altitude of 400 feet, unless the drone is within 400 feet of a structure in which case the drone can fly above 400 feet. The exception to the altitude restriction should prove useful for commercial applications utilizing drone aircraft for tower safety inspections. The FAA has adopted (or preserved) additional safety rules, including that drones will be restricted from flying over persons not directly involved with the flight and must stay within the visual-line-of-sight of the pilot in command and person manipulating the controls. In order to permit operational flexibility, however, the rules also establish a waiver application mechanism for operators that may wish to deviate from the general operating restrictions. The FAA will evaluate waiver requests based on whether the proposed operation can be safely conducted under the certificate of waiver. It is widely expected that the FAA will receive a large number of waiver requests under this new flexible regulatory framework to address specific commercial drone applications; the FAA estimates it will spend an additional $150 million through 2020 to hire additional employees and to implement these new rules.

1. “A Longer Leash for Drones,” The Wall Street Journal (June 25-26, 2016) at B3.