Era of widespread small UAS commercial operation takes off.

As of August 29, the FAA’s new rules permitting commercial operation of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, also known as “drones”) have taken effect. (And, just in time, the FAA has announced that the Office of Management and Budget has signed off on the “information collections” created by those rules, thereby eliminating any Paperwork Reduction Act concerns.) Previously, small UAS could be operated commercially only pursuant to what were known as “333 exemptions”. As we reported a couple of months ago, the FAA has now added a new Part 107 to its rules that obviates the need for such exemptions, so long as specific flying requirements are followed. Before you launch your UAS into the wild blue yonder, though, be sure to familiarize yourself with those requirements, which impose limits on a number of operational aspects: how, where and when your UAS can be flown, what it can transport, how it is to be registered, etc.

And don’t forget, you’ll be needing an authorized pilot – technically, a “remote pilot in command” (remote PIC) holding a “remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating” – at the controls. Individuals already holding a Part 61 pilot certificate have a relatively easy path to their remote pilot certification: they just take the online “Part 107 sUAS Course” available at the FAA’s website and, having successfully completed the course, apply for the remote certification. Would-be remote PICs who don’t already have a Part 61 certificate face a more rigorous and time-consuming process which includes threshold background checks and a mandatory initial aeronautical knowledge test administered at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center. If you’re looking to get your UAS airborne as quickly as possible, using a Part 61-certified pilot willing to take the Part 107 course is probably your best bet.

While Part 107 operation has now largely replaced the need for 333 exemptions, the FAA is still facing a backlog of applications for 333 exemptions that were in the pipeline before the new Part 107 rules were adopted. We understand that the FAA is triaging applications in the backlog, with plans to dismiss those proposing operations permissible under the new rules. Pending applications proposing operations beyond the scope of Part 107 will continue to be processed.

And coming up on the horizon: a new set of rules to provide more guidance and flexibility on UAS flights over people. The FAA reportedly aims to complete this next year.

Finally, a word to the wise. We hear that the FAA has been training both field staff and local law enforcement on the new rules. While the precise penalties for violations have not been spelled out, the FAA does have authority to assess civil penalties up to $27,500 – which provides plenty of incentive to fly lawfully out there!