United States: Drone Propellers Aren't The Only Things Buzzing As The FAA Releases Proposed Regulations For The Commercial Operation Of Unmanned Aerial Systems

In a surprise move during Presidents' Day weekend, the Federal Aviation Administration released long-awaited proposed regulations for the commercial operation of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). The draft regulations prompted a collective sigh of relief by UAS advocates, as they are significantly less onerous than feared. The sudden disclosure may have been prompted by Saturday's apparently inadvertent posting on www.regulations.gov of a 79-page report by the FAA's Economic Analysis Division regarding integration of small UAS into the National Airspace System (also known as the Thurston Report). That report almost immediately was removed from the government's website, but was followed quickly on Sunday by a press conference hosted by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.1

The FAA is touting the proposed regulations as safe, simple and flexible. They are intended to ensure separation from all other aircraft, while mitigating risk to people and property on the ground. By making them simple and flexible, the FAA hopes to provide certainty and facilitate compliance by UAS operators. Key features of the proposed regulations include:2

  • UAS must weigh less than 55 lbs., have a maximum airspeed of 100 mph, and are limited to an altitude of 500 feet above ground level;
  • UAS may be operated only during daytime, in weather conditions with at least three miles visibility, and within the direct visual line of sight of the operator and/or visual observer;
  • UAS operations are prohibited above 18,000 feet, and require permission from air traffic controllers to operate in controlled airspace (e.g., airspace near airports and national security areas), including Class B, C, D, E and G;
  • UAS operators will not be required to possess pilot's licenses or medical certificates, but must obtain a newly created UAS operator's certificate, by passing an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved facility (and re-currency examinations every 24 months thereafter), as well as a security check by the Transportation Security Administration; and
  • Airworthiness certification will not be required, although UAS will have to be registered with the FAA and display registration markings "in the largest practicable manner."

The FAA recently has been chastised for its "paralysis" with respect to UAS regulation.3 Its Sunday release of proposed regulations, however, was motivated not only by public pressure over inaction, but also by both the potential economic and safety benefits of UAS. The Thurston Report projects an economic impact of "greater than $100 million per year." It also references 95 fatalities by individuals servicing cellular and other utility towers, some of which may have been avoided by the use of UAS. During Sunday's press conference, Administrator Huerta identified several additional industries and activities that are likely to benefit from the use of UAS, including bridge inspections, power and pipeline maintenance, academia (education and research and development), wildlife conservation, agriculture, search and rescue, and media/entertainment.

Industry enthusiasts embraced the proposed regulations, particularly for omitting the economic burdens of commercial pilot and airworthiness certification. They also are largely consistent with the conditions imposed upon recipients of authorizations granted in connection with petitions filed under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. That consistency has given current recipients of Certificates of Authorization the confidence to proceed "full steam ahead" with UAS services and development.4

The draft regulations, however, are not without potential shortcomings and problems. UAS proponents decry the restriction of flight to daylight hours and visual line of sight, contending that it ignores available technology and the utility of automation. Provisions for enforcement, penalties for violations, and protection of privacy also are conspicuously absent. The FAA has answers for some, but not all of those questions. It believes it is incumbent upon the operators to demonstrate that technology can maintain adequate separation with other aircraft, people and property. To the extent operators demonstrate that technology satisfactorily, the FAA may authorize the use thereof through the Section 333 exemption process, and may revise the proposed rules accordingly during the comment process. No answer is proffered with respect to violations and enforcement, while privacy issues are deflected with a reference to the February 15, 2015 presidential memorandum, "Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems."

So, where does that leave the aviation industry?

The public may comment on the proposed regulations for 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register. In addition, the FAA intends to hold public meetings at UAS test sites and the Center of Excellence. As a practical matter, however, it may be several years before the regulations are finalized and implemented.

Section 333 Petitions

Individuals and entities with more immediate needs and desires to operate UAS should continue to petition for exemption, pursuant to Section 333 of the FAA Modernization Act. To date, fewer than 30 Certificates of Authorization have been granted by the FAA, with over 300 additional petitions presently pending. Most of those certificates were granted to entities for filming television and motion pictures on closed sets. A few have been granted for "precision aerial surveying," including agriculture. Certificates also have been granted to one entity for inspecting oil and gas stack flares, and to a real estate agent in Arizona. The FAA has taken on average between 4-5 months to rule upon these petitions. Certificates of Authorization granted pursuant to Section 333 expire two years from the date of issue.

Certificates of Authorization currently in effect require, inter alia, the operator to hold at least a private pilot's license and a Third Class Medical Certificate. The applicant also must develop a detailed operations manual. While conditions such as these may be more onerous than the proposed regulations, voluntary compliance with them likely will facilitate approval of the petition during this interim period. A petitioner also should be prepared to monitor the Federal Register for comments. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), for example, routinely has commented on pending petitions. While ALPA's position generally has been that UAS should be operated by commercial pilots, it has included additional comments on the particulars of petitions. Where comments are material or may raise a valid point, the Section 333 petitioner would be wise to file a reply.

State and Local Laws

UAS operation does not end with federal law. Several states also have passed statutes regulating this activity. Most of the state legislation is directed to privacy concerns, such as those in California and North Carolina. Colorado and Montana statutes prohibit the use of UAS to track and hunt animals. A Michigan bill does the same, but also criminalizes the use of UAS to harass any hunter. The validity of state laws pertaining to UAS presently is unknown, especially with respect to the possibility of federal preemption. Until those issues are determined, Certificate of Authorization holders should be aware and comply with the local laws of the areas in which they operate UAS.


Whether or not the FAA's release of proposed UAS regulation was in accordance with a planned timetable, or accelerated by an inadvertent leak of an internal document, it is an important first step toward integration into the national airspace system of an industry that holds tremendous potential for economic growth, utility and safety. UAS stakeholders can forge ahead with confidence, insofar as the FAA has sought, and for the most part succeeded, in minimizing the economic burden of regulation. Questions remain, but the industry now has something more tangible to debate. In the interim, Section 333 petitions for exemption remain available to UAS operators seeking to establish a foothold in this promising field.


1 A copy of the FAA official press release may be found at http://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=18295

2 The official FAA Overview of Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is set forth at http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/media/021515_sUAS_Summary.pdf

3 See, e.g., http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_27261558/drone-industry-decries-paralysis-delayed-faa-rule-making

4 http://www.forbes.com/sites/gregorymcneal/2015/02/14/the-faa-may-get-drones-right-after-all-9-insights-into-forthcoming-regulations/

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions