Yesterday, the FAA officially released Part 107, which encompasses the new rules for commercial operation of drones. This is a defining moment for the drone industry in the U.S., since the new regulations make it so much easier for individuals, service providers, and enterprises to use drones for business. Here's how:
- The FAA has removed the certified pilot restriction. Prior to Part 107, the only people allowed to operate drones commercially had to have a manned aircraft pilot's license. Now drones can be operated for profit by anyone, as long as they pass a written test. This makes the technology so much more accessible to the average worker, like field engineers, insurance adjustors, farmers, construction crews, and more.
- Operations no longer have to stay 500 feet away from non-participating individuals or property. Keeping a 500 foot buffer was practically impossible in any moderately populated environment, and prevented so many applications involving homes, buildings, and other structures. Now, operators just need to take care not to fly over people who aren't participating or otherwise protected by a structure. By the way, cars don't count if they're moving... so no flying over roads.
- All the paperwork and hassle around filing for a Section 333 exemption is no longer required. The previous Section 333 exemption process essentially involved copying other people's exemptions word-for-word and then waiting 6-7 months for an FAA rubber stamp of approval. It was unnecessarily burdensome and slow, and it's finally over. Hallelujah.
- Flying within 5 miles of airports MIGHT become a little easier. It appears operators will no longer need to request a special COA (certificate of authorization) from the FAA to fly near airports, which can take months to get approved, and instead just need ATC approval. It remains to be seen if ATC will grant these approvals, and how long the process will take, but we're hopeful that it will be an improvement.
- Operations can now fly as high as required, as long as they're within 400 feet of an existing structure. Since we do a lot of work on tall structures like wind turbines and cell towers, this is something we were pushing for, so we're happy to see a provision was included.
There are still a few areas where we'd like to see the FAA pull back the regulations more. For example, the FAA should reconsider allowing night-time operations. If the drone is within line of sight and visible to its operator at night, there's really no reason the operation shouldn't be allowed. There are many applications of drones that ONLY work at night, like drone light shows or certain types of thermal imaging. Additionally, the 1 operator to 1 drone requirement should be looked at. As automation continues to improve, it will be possible for a single operator to manage multiple drones at once, and hiring additional operators will be cost prohibitive in these scenarios.
All in all, I'm relieved the new regulations were released on time (according to estimates last year), and mostly matched up with the FAA's original proposal from back in Feb. 2015. The new regulations will take effect in August 2016. Until then, organizations can operate under their existing Section 333 exemptions.