United States: FAA Advisory Group Recommends Framework For Drone Flights Over People

Joel Roberson and Chuck Tobin are Partners in Holland & Knight's Washington D.C. office
Christine Walz is an Associate in Holland & Knight's
Washington D.C. office


  • Today, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a report recommending a new regulatory framework for the flight of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, over people.
  • The report represents the consensus position of more than two dozen industry expert organizations – including a coalition of news companies that Holland & Knight represents – and specifically recommends that the FAA adopt a four-tier framework for UAS flights over people.
  • FAA plans to use this report to inform the development of a notice of proposed rulemaking expected by December 2016.

Today, April 6, a panel of industry experts assembled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) submitted its report recommending a new regulatory framework for the flight of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, over people.

The report presents the FAA with a risk-based approach to allow for small UAS flights over people in four categories with different requirements based on the level of risk. FAA plans to use this report to inform the development of a notice of proposed rulemaking expected by December 2016.

This report represents the consensus position of more than two dozen organizations invited by the FAA to join an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) on the safe flight of UAS over people. The committee was co-chaired by Earl Lawrence, director of the FAA UAS Integration Office, and Nancy Egan, general counsel of 3D Robotics. The ARC representatives also included UAS commercial operators, hobbyists, manufacturers, and software developers, as well as manned-aircraft pilots, airlines, airports, the National Association of Realtors and the News Media Coalition.

Holland & Knight participated in the ARC on behalf of our client, the News Media Coalition, a group of 22 leading news media organizations in the United States.


On Feb. 23, 2015, the FAA published a notice of proposed rulemaking entitled "Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems." In this notice, the FAA requested public comment on whether the agency should create a "microUAS" category of UAS that could operate over people. The FAA confirmed to the ARC that the final rule governing small UAS operations expected this summer will not allow for UAS operations over people.

Instead, FAA established the ARC to provide pre-decisional advice to the FAA to assist in the development of a separate rulemaking for flights over people by December 2016. Unlike the earlier proposed rulemaking, the ARC was asked to develop recommendations based on performance standards, rather than weight classes.

The FAA is expected to publish the final rule on small UAS this summer. The special rule on overhead flights likely will not be finalized before the second half of 2017.

Scope of the Report

The ARC report to FAA recommends a subcategory of small UAS that can be safely flown over people. In addition, the report includes certification criteria and operational limitations for those small UAS that would be permitted to operate over people. The report assumes that, as the FAA already has indicated, flights over people will be restricted to those that meet the following requirements:

  • are within visual line of sight (VLOS)
  • remain under 500 feet
  • fly during daytime
  • fly away from manned aircraft (in Class G airspace)
  • operated by individuals that have passed an initial aeronautical knowledge test

ARC Recommendations to FAA

During the ARC deliberations, the Committee heard presentations from scientists, industry experts and foreign governments on risks of UAS to people, current operational limits and UAS regulations in other countries. Based on these presentations, the ARC developed its report to FAA, recommending a four-tier performance-based framework for UAS flights over people. For many of the scientific determinations, the ARC report requires that a voluntary consensus body determine the specific scientific thresholds. Therefore, while the ARC recommendation provides a general framework that includes some guidance about what types of drones will fall in each class, this is an approximation that will ultimately depend on the specific energy thresholds developed in the voluntary consensus standard process. Voluntary consensus standards will be developed later by third-party standard setting organizations, such as American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or the Consumer Technology Association, to specifically define the energy thresholds and operational requirements that will apply to each category.

The following are the four categories recommended by the ARC:

  • Category 1: For a small UAS that weighs less than 0.55 pounds (250 grams), operations over people would be permitted with very limited restrictions. Category 1 is designed for a toy UAS or a small UAS approximately the size of a smartphone that poses a low risk when flown over people. Based on the low risk, the ARC report also recommends that the FAA develop a more flexible initial aeronautical test for operators of Category 1 small UAS. It should be noted that the manned aircraft participants of the ARC objected to creating lower operator requirements for these small UAS based on their view that all UAS operators should have minimum knowledge.
  • Category 2: For a small UAS that creates a low risk of serious injury based on their energy profile, operations over people would be permitted as long the operator maintains a minimum distance of 20 feet above people's heads or 10 feet laterally away from people on the ground. Experts presenting to the ARC estimated that Category 2 small UAS would likely be below 4-5 pounds, depending on the impact energy consensus standard. There are a number of small UAS currently on the market that are expected to fit within this category.
  • Category 3: For a small UAS that creates a moderate risk of serious injury based on their energy profile and meet certain manufacturer certification requirements, operations would be permitted over some people if the people are incidental to the operation. In this category, operators would not be permitted to fly over crowds of people, but could fly over a closed or restricted access work site or over transient or incidental pedestrians so long as the overhead flight was not sustained. Experts presenting to the ARC estimated that Category 3 UAS would likely be below 6-8 pounds, depending on impact energy consensus standard.
  • Category 4: For a small UAS that creates a moderate risk of serious injury based on their energy profile and meet certain manufacturer certification requirements, operations over people would be permitted in accordance with a required documented risk mitigation plan. The documented risk mitigation plan would have to meet voluntary consensus standards to be established later. It is expected that risk mitigation plans would include items like (1) minimum pilot or operator qualifications or training requirements; (2) possible pooling agreements or limitations on the number of drones that could be flown within a given airspace and/or (3) coordination with local officials or first responders. In Category 4, operations over crowds would be permitted. In the same manner as Category 3, experts presenting to the ARC estimated that Category 4 UAS would likely be below 6-8 pounds, depending on impact energy consensus standard.

Note that these recommendations only pertain to flights over people. Flights that are not conducted over people will be subject to the requirements of the general small UAS rulemaking once that final rule is released.

The FAA will now move forward with a formal rulemaking to address small UAS flights over people. The FAA expects that a proposed rule addressing small UAS will be issued by December 2016 with a final rulemaking in 2017. Meanwhile, Congress is also considering FAA reauthorization legislation that would include statutory requirements for small UAS flights over people.

This is an area of significant legislative and regulatory activity, which manufacturers and drone operators should continue to monitor.   

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
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
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). 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 & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd 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 or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.