As a follow up to my discussion about the Precision Farming Expo, I just have to reiterate the discussions on the current state of regulations in the United States in regards to commercial use of UAVs, as I understand it and some of the finer points presented by attorney Wendie Kellington at her expo presentation. There are three types of entities looking to fly UAVs, the first being non-commercial hobbits model aircraft flyers and they have their own set of guidelines from the FAA.
The two entities seeking to use commercial drones outside the military, government agencies (police, border patrol, universities, etc.) and private companies and individuals. Government agencies have the ability to apply for a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to legally operate a UAV as long as they follow a long list of operational rules. Currently, for the general public to legally operate UAVs for commercial use, we need to apply for and receive a FAA Section 333 Exemption. Here is a good Q&A page about FAA rules and UAV use. And here is a great list of the private citizens currently with an exemption, provided by the folks at SkyWard.
The general FAA guidelines for small UAS (sUAS) include:
- Operator is a licensed pilot and a second visual observer must be present
- Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles
- Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times
- Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations
- Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying
- Don’t fly near people or stadiums
- Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 lbs
However, for those companies that have received FAA 333 Exemptions, there are actually more like 40 rules they have to follow. Here is a link to an official FAA 333 Exemption; check out the UAS operating Conditions and Limitations from pages 13 – 18. And, the legal complications are not clear, but if the FAA doesn’t like your new and unsanctioned UAV for hire business, they could give you a lot of grief, like this guy (Photographer Gregory Rec).
Now, the FAA has a very broad interpretation of “commercial use”. Commercial use includes taking video/pics of an area before you ground-truth it for a client, or monitoring a utility, or creating a photomosaic or DEM for a client. The commercial use definition even goes so far as to include the scenario of a farmer on his own property using his UAV to look at his crops to see if he needs to water more somewhere or apply extra pesticide to a portion of his field. Basically, after looking at this for the last year and speaking to attorneys, it has become apparent that if you are doing any flights with a UAV that is more than flying it around your backyard or a public park, then it is probably a commercial use.
I’m not going to deny that there are a lot of people in the U.S. flying UAVs for commercial use in a way that the FAA deems illegal. However, that isn’t a good idea for more than just the fact that the FAA sees it as illegal. If you are commercially flying $20k – $50k worth of UAV (good sensors and long flight times are expensive!), then you should definitely have insurance for it. Any business of any kind should be operating with liability insurance, and there are a few insurers out there insuring UAVs. However, if the worse happens and you crash your UAV and damage someone or their property, who is to say your UAV insurance provider isn’t going to back out at the last second and claim you were conducting your work illegally because you didn’t have a FAA 333 Exemption?
AFS and our partners have examined the rules commonly put in place for the companies that have received 333 Exemptions, and they are typically a long list of rules with the most stringent part being that the operator of the UAV must have a pilots license and 3rd class airman medical certificate. A complicated application process, but one we are willing to go through to stay completely legal in the eyes of federal agencies. However, the new FAA regulations that will probably eliminate the need for a licensed pilot to operate your UAV will probably go into effect in late 2016 or maybe more likely in 2017.
This delay is too bad as it has caused American UAV companies to fall woefully behind their European counterparts as it is just easier to legally fly and test outside the US. It is really easy to see that American competitors are further along as their UAVs have longer flight times and clean, aerodynamic bodies with all the wiring hiding compared to many American models that look like they were assembled in someones garage. I have no doubt that the American industry will quickly catch up, but the current FAA regulations are a huge hindrance to innovation in the U.S.
Just be sure to fly safe and smart out there, and remember, it only takes one bad apple making a bad decision with their UAV to ruin the party for everyone else.
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