In a Surprising Move, the FAA Proposes Lightweight Commercial Rules for Small UAS

February 19, 2015  - By


After much criticism in the mainstream and technology media about the commercial use of UAS (unmanned aerial systems), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been remarkably proactive in integrating the commercial use of UAS in the United States National Airspace System (NAS) the past two months. Just last summer, media like the Washington Post, fueled by a government audit, were reporting that the FAA will miss the September 2015 deadline, which is spelled out in the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012, to integrate commercial UAS usage into the NAS.

By proactive, I mean the rate at which the FAA is issuing UAS exemptions for commercial use. Two weeks ago, the FAA issued eight more commercial UAS exemptions, bringing the total to 24 since June 2014, with the vast majority of those being issued in the last two months. The latest exemptions issued were for aerial mapping, motion picture and television production, and bridge inspection. You can view the entire list of exemptions and the intended applications here. All of the exemptions have more than 30 conditions and limitations the operator must follow, of which a FAA private pilot (or better) certificate and a FAA third-class medical certificate is required, as well as a second person, the Visual Observer (VO). That’s fine. There’s nothing new on that front since I last reported on this.

However, earlier this week, the FAA issued an NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rule Making) for commercial operations of “small” UAS, with surprisingly lightweight conditions compared to the exemptions granted thus far. Following are the key points of the NPRM:

  • Pilot must be 17 years of age or older.
  • Pass an FAA-approved aeronautical knowledge test and retest every two years.
  • Obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating.
  • Obtain an FAA Class II airman medical certificate.
  • Be vetted by the Transportation Security Agency (TSA).
  • Maintain visual line of sight without aids (except corrective lenses).
  • Not operate over any person who is not part of the mission.
  • Maximum UAS weight is 55 pounds.
  • Maximum airspeed of 100 mph.
  • Maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level.
  • Minimum weather visibility of three miles.
  • Yield right-of-way to other manned and unmanned aircraft.
  • Contact air traffic control or airport operator when flying within five miles of an airport.

These conditions are certainly lighter than the conditions imposed on the exemptions issued thus far. However, instead of requiring an FAA private pilot certificate, the FAA proposes creating a new type of certificate named an “unmanned aircraft operator certificate.” Digging into the documentation, the new “small UAS pilot certificate” consists generally of the following:

  • At least 17 years of age, although the FAA seems open to reducing it to 16 years of age.
  • Read, write, speak English (with exceptions).
  • Pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test, which tests the applicant’s understanding of FAA regulations, airspace, flight restrictions, collision avoidance, weather/meteorology, weight/balance calculations, emergency response, aeronautical decision-making, airport operations, and drug/alcohol impairment.
  • Demonstrate flight proficiency and aeronautical experience. The FAA is asking for suggestions on these two.

For a summary description of the proposed Small UAS Limitations and Certifications, click here.

For a detailed description of the proposed requirements for the FAA small UAS pilot certificate, click here.

The FAA Class II Airman medical certificate requirement is somewhat surprising because it’s more stringent than the Class III medical certificate required in the exemptions issued thus far. Perhaps the FAA is rethinking this because of the line-0f-sight requirement that puts a premium on sharp vision for UAS pilots. Class II requires distance vision of 20/20 in each eye separately while Class III only requires distance vision of 20/40 in each eye separately. Click here to see the requirements for Class I, II and III medical certificates. To give you some idea, I had an FAA Class III medical exam completed last month. It took about an hour. Although I have an FAA private pilot certificate, one is not needed to obtain an FAA medical certificate.

FAA Class III Medical Certificate

FAA Class III Medical Certificate

Perhaps a bigger challenge than passing the FAA medical exam, which wasn’t difficult, was finding a certified FAA medical examiner near you. You can search for an examiner near you by clicking here.

So, it seems the FAA is making progress, and we should give them credit for that. But, we are still very early in the process, and as the mainstream and other media predict, the FAA will likely burn through the September 2015 deadline well into next year, albeit chipping away and issuing exemptions on a regular basis as they have been for the past two months. You can bet that exemption applications are piling up. To view the growing list of exemption applications, click here. In reading the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012, it states “The FAA is required to initiate a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for site integration of UAS within 18 months of the date of enactment of the integration plan.” Hmmm, 18 months from now = October 2016, and this NPRM is for small UAS only. Stay tuned….

Thanks, and see you next month.

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This article is tagged with , , and posted in GSS Monthly, Mapping, Technology, 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.