FAA just gave US commercial drone industry major shot in the arm

June 30, 2016  - By
Image: GPS World

Mark June 21, 2016, on your calendar.

This will be known as the day in geospatial history that the floodgates were opened for small drones to be used for business. On that day, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officially introduced new rules (so-called Part 107) that allow businesses to fly small (under 55 pounds) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the U.S. airspace for business purposes.

There are still a few rules that need to be adhered to, but no longer do “wannabe” UAV pilots need to go through the painful FAA 333 Exemption process to begin flying UAVs for business purposes. The FAA has created a pilot certificate specifically for UAV pilots called the “Remote Pilot Certificate” that does not require any manned aircraft training.

Previously, UAV pilots authorized by the FAA were required to at least have an FAA Sport Pilot Certificate, which required at least 20 hours of manned flight training, among other things. Deployment of the new Remote Pilot Certificate will begin just two months from now, in August 2016, according to this announcement by the FAA.

In a nutshell, following is the operating environment under the new Remote Pilot (Part 107) rules:

  • Remote Pilot Certificate.
  • Be at least 16 years old. Pass a three-hour aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA Knowledge Test Center, requiring about 20 hours of study. Pay a $150 fee. The certificate is valid for two years.
  • Complete FAA Form 8710-13.
  • Maximum operating altitude is 400 feet AGL, or 400 feet AGL (above ground level) from a structure (e.g. building, roof).
  • Visual observer (VO) is now optional (was required under 333 Exemption) except if the pilot uses First Person View technology, then a VO is required.
  • UAV must weigh less than 55 pounds.
  • UAV must fly less than 100 miles per hour.
  • You can’t fly over anyone who is not directly participating in the operation, and not under a covered structure.
  • You can pilot a UAV from a moving vehicle in “sparsely populated” areas, but otherwise must be stationary (e.g. no piloting from other aircraft).
  • Daylight-only operations.
  • Pilot can only operate one UAV at a time.
  • Operations in Class G airspace are allowed without air traffic control (ATC) permission. Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace need ATC approval. See description of US airspace here.
  • Operator does not have to be a certificated pilot if a certificated pilot is along side the operator.
  • Pilot must maintain VLOS (visual line of sight) of the UAS at all times.

If you have a requirement that exceeds one of more of the above restrictions, the FAA says that as long as you can show that your operation can be carried out in a safe manner, you can request a waiver (Certificate of Waiver and Authorization – CoA) via an FAA portal.

Links to key FAA documents on the new ruling:

The remaining major hurdle for commercial operations is the requirement to maintain VLOS, which still is required under the new rules. With a rotary UAV (e.g. quad-copter) like what I fly, this requirement is easy to adhere to since the UAV isn’t traveling very fast and if you simply let go of the control sticks, it will hover. With a fixed-wing (conventional airplane airframe) UAV, this is not so easy. A fixed-wing can travel 30 to 40 mph, and can be out of VLOS within one minute, and it’s always moving. Nonetheless, even with the VLOS rule still in place, the new Part 107 rules grant a new, easily accessible and powerful tool to collect high-precision geospatial data.

The good news for geospatial professionals is that more UAV companies are focusing on the professional marketplace.

In 2009, 3D Robotics started targeting the DIY (do-it-yourself) UAV market, then the consumer market, and now are focusing on the professional markets like GIS, construction, etc.

[Related: 3DR demos Site Scan at Esri UC]

Because the rules have opened up to a much broader audience, expect more vendors to offer more products and services for professional UAV operators. For example, at the Esri International User Conference this week in San Diego, Esri showcased its Drone2Map software product that allows Esri software users to process and consume UAV data into the ArcGIS ecosystem.

It’s no longer hype, folks. UAVs are here to stay, and they are becoming an increasingly powerful tool in the geospatial toolbox. The great news is that will all the UAV hype over the last few years, there’s many different vendors offering UAV hardware and softwares for you to choose from. All that competition will be reflected in the quality and price of UAVs on the market, benefitting the consumer.

Thanks, and see you next month.

Follow me on Twitter at @GPSGIS_Eric.

This article is tagged with , , , , and posted in Featured Stories, GSS Monthly, Opinions, UAS/UAV

About the Author: Eric Gakstatter

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as consulted with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributor to GPS World magazine, serving as editor of the monthly Survey Scene newsletter until 2015, and as editor of Geospatial Solutions monthly newsletter for GPS World's sister site Geospatial Solutions, which focuses on GIS and geospatial technologies.

1 Comment on "FAA just gave US commercial drone industry major shot in the arm"

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  1. Thank you for putting together great GeoSpatial articles.