On Wednesday, June 21, the FAA finalized the rules for commercial UAVs, or drones. The market has been anxiously awaiting those rules for several years. While  hobbyist UAV use was allowed,  commercial use was specifically prohibited until now.

Having been lobbied by the Academy of Model Aviation (AMA), Amazon, Google, Walmart, and others, the FAA allowed the commercial use of UAVs. The main concern that caused the delay in issuing regulations had to do with fatal mid-air collisions with commercial and airline aviation. Recently the industry saw more mid-air collisions, and the FAA wanted to make sure the new rules prevent that, as well as prevent harm to people on the ground. The Airline Pilots Association, representing 53,000 pilots, commended the way the rules prevent such potential accidents.

All of a sudden, with one swoop of regulations, Amazon's plans for 30-minute drone-delivery may become reality sooner rather than later.

The industry estimates that the rules will generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) believes that $13.6 billion and 70,000 jobs will be created in the first three years alone.

The rules will become effective in August. They will allow the use of UAVs weighing up to 55 pounds, traveling as fast as 100 mph for non-hobbyist operations, and flying in an altitude no higher than 400 feet. Operations are limited to daytime, line-of-sight use, in which the pilot can see that UAV at all times. Operations are allowed in uncontrolled airspace (Class G) without air traffic control (ATC) permission, but require ATC permission if flying in controlled airspace (Classes B, C, D, and E), the airspace around commercial airports.

The FAA requires commercial UAV pilots to be licensed, and will offer online courses and tests. Pilots have to be at least 16 years old. Provisions were made for Part 61 pilots (pilots who actually fly planes while sitting inside--you know, the old-fashioned way) who hold a current license. The UAV has to be registered (the FAA registered 464,591 drone operators by June 8, including myself), but need not be certified for air-worthiness, unlike full-size airplanes. The responsibility for preflight check lies with the pilot.

Privacy issues that restricted UAV operations (such as those addressed by specific rules created by certain states) were not addressed by the new FAA regulations, and the operation remains subject to those rules.

The industry has wanted these new regulations for many years. Without them, the UAV market wouldn't have had a chance to grow beyond hobbyists and a very limited number of per-use waiver holders.

The rules leave more to be desired, such as the ability to fly drones remotely, beyond visual line-of-sight (a requirement that currently prevents Amazon, Google, and Walmart from remote delivery), and even completely autonomous (using GPS waypoints) although the FAA research in the area requires "detect and avoid" technologies that will prevent mid-air collisions with commercial aircraft, ground structures, and even other drones. But for now, it is still a great leap.

Published on: Jun 23, 2016