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Drone Rules, Now Updated, Leave Many Questions Up in the Air!

Posted 7/1/2016

R. Bruce Wright, CPCU

On June 21, 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration finally issued rules on the operation of drones by private operators. The new rules landed with the impact of a falling feather, but at least they are a start.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s new commercial drone rules allow a broad range of businesses to use drones under 55 pounds, but with significant restrictions that will limit their value to utility operators. Some are expected and routine: The drones must be operated by a pilot who is at least 16 years old and has passed a written test and, may be flown only below 400 feet, during the day and at least five miles away from airports. Much more limiting is the fact that the new guidelines continue to mandate that a commercial drone operator must always have the machine within line of sight — a rule that, for now, makes their use for remote line patrol or outage spotting unfeasible. Line of sight inspections of transmission line, usually an annual program done from the ground or by helicopter at many of our utilities, could be one task that might be performed cost effectively under these rules. 

Equally problematic is the fact that the new FAA rules do not expressly overrule the jumble of state and local drone regulations that have been enacted previously. The FAA sent a letter to states and cities saying they recommend everyone follow their lead, but it does not have the weight of law.

Overviews of the new rules were reported in many press outlets; the New York Times’ article can be found here.

The FAA posted a summary of the rules, entitled a SUMMARY OF SMALL UNMANNED AIRCRAFT RULE on its Website. The summary provides the following overview:

Operational Limitations

  • Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs. (25 kg).
  • Visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only; the unmanned aircraft must remain within VLOS of the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS. Alternatively, the unmanned aircraft must remain within VLOS of the visual observer.
  • At all times the small unmanned aircraft must remain close enough to the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS for those people to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.
  • Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly participating in the operation, not under a covered structure, and not inside a covered stationary vehicle.
  • Daylight-only operations, or civil twilight (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset, local time) with appropriate anti-collision lighting.
  • Must yield right of way to other aircraft.
  • May use visual observer (VO) but not required.
  • First-person view camera cannot satisfy “see-and-avoid” requirement but can be used as long as requirement is satisfied in other ways.
  • Maximum groundspeed of 100 mph (87 knots).
  • Maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level (AGL) or, if higher than 400 feet AGL, remain within 400 feet of a structure.
  • Minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from control station.
  • Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are allowed with the required ATC permission.
  • Operations in Class G airspace are allowed without ATC permission.
  • No person may act as a remote pilot in command or VO for more than one unmanned aircraft operation at one time.
  • No operations from a moving aircraft.
  • No operations from a moving vehicle unless the operation is over a sparsely populated area.
  • No careless or reckless operations.
  • No carriage of hazardous materials.
  • Requires preflight inspection by the remote pilot in command.
  • 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.
  • Foreign-registered small unmanned aircraft are allowed to operate under part 107 if they satisfy the requirements of part 375.
  • External load operations are allowed if the object being carried by the unmanned aircraft is securely attached and does not adversely affect the flight characteristics or controllability of the aircraft.
  • Transportation of property for compensation or hire allowed provided that:
    • The aircraft, including its attached systems, payload and  cargo weigh less than 55 pounds total;
    • The flight is conducted within visual line of sight and not from a moving vehicle or aircraft; and
    • The flight occurs wholly within the bounds of a State and does not involve transport between (1) Hawaii and another place in Hawaii through airspace outside Hawaii; (2) the District of Columbia and another place in the District of Columbia; or (3) a territory or possession of the United States and another place in the same territory or possession.
  • Most of the restrictions discussed above are waivable if the applicant demonstrates that his or her operation can safely be conducted under the terms of a certificate of waiver.

Remote Pilot in Command Certification and Responsibilities

  • Establishes a remote pilot in command position.
  • A person operating a small UAS must either hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who does hold a remote pilot certificate (remote pilot in command).
  • To qualify for a remote pilot certificate, a person must:
    • Demonstrate aeronautical knowledge by either:
      • Passing an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center; or
      • Hold a part 61 pilot certificate other than student pilot, complete a flight review within the previous 24 months, and complete a small UAS online training course provided by the FAA.
    • Be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration.
    • Be at least 16 years old.
  • Part 61 pilot certificate holders may obtain a temporary remote pilot certificate immediately upon submission of their application for a permanent certificate. Other applicants will obtain a temporary remote pilot certificate upon successful completion of TSA security vetting. The FAA anticipates that it will be able to issue a temporary remote pilot certificate within 10 business days after receiving a completed remote pilot certificate application.
  • Until international standards are developed, foreign-certificated UAS pilots will be required to obtain an FAA- issued remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating.
  • A remote pilot in command must:
    • Make available to the FAA, upon request, the small UAS for inspection or testing, and any associated documents/records required to be kept under the rule.
    • Report to the FAA within 10 days of any operation that results in at least serious injury, loss of consciousness, or property damage of at least $500.
    • Conduct a preflight inspection, to include specific aircraft and control station systems checks, to ensure the small UAS is in a condition for safe operation.
    • Ensure that the small unmanned aircraft complies with the existing registration requirements specified in § 91.203(a)(2).
    • A remote pilot in command may deviate from the requirements of this rule in response to an in-flight emergency.

Aircraft Requirements

  • FAA airworthiness certification is not required. However, the remote pilot in command must conduct a preflight check of the small UAS to ensure that it is in a condition for safe operation.

Model Aircraft

  • Part 107 does not apply to model aircraft that satisfy all of the criteria specified in section 336 of Public Law 112-95.
  • The rule codifies the FAA’s enforcement authority in part 101 by prohibiting model aircraft operators from endangering the safety of the NAS.

More information from the FAA, including the full text of the rule, can be seen by clicking here.

What all of this means is that, despite predictions, conflict remains between the federal government and various state & local governments. The FAA takes the position that its rules govern everything that flies, but did not try to formally set aside existing local regulations. Pending legislation approved by the U.S. Senate would place all authority for drone rules in federal hands, which many state officials oppose. Its passage by the House of Representatives is doubtful. During the time the FAA took in its rule-making process, states and local governments enacted dozens of laws that restrict drones, such as prohibiting drones with weapons and barring flights over private property. More than 30 states have passed laws governing drones, requiring search warrants for police to use drones for surveillance, providing criminal penalties for misusing drones and creating various privacy protections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. What may become of these rules remains uncertain. The bottom line is that until remote viewing via airborne cameras is accepted by the FAA in lieu of direct line of sight visual contact, the use of drones for power line inspections is likely to be limited. 

Last, but certainly not least, do not forget that if your company elects to purchase a drone, before it comes out to the box you should contact your insurance agent! (You will need a special coverage endorsement added to your policy, without which you will not be covered for drone operations.)