The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has finalized the first operational rule, Part 107, for routine commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), also known as drones. The new guidelines, finalized in June and effective Aug. 29, open up the skies to drone operation for business like never before. According to industry estimates, the new rule could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years, the FAA says.
Surveying and geospatial professionals make up a significant segment of the stakeholders that stand to benefit from a clear legal framework around drone operation. The geospatial community’s interest in drone technology has been evident since before Part 107 was ever finalized. Out of all 3,136 Section 333 exemptions approved as of Jan. 20, aerial photography, aerial inspection and aerial survey ranked first, third and fourth with regard to application popularity, according to “Commercial UAS Exemptions,” an AUVSI report.
The FAA started awarding grants of exemption to companies looking to operate drones commercially in September 2014, as a part of Section 333 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. The exemption process served as the only way for businesses to bypass the airworthiness requirement and other prerequisites tied to manned aircraft. The 2012 act also instructed the FAA to develop rules for integrating drones into the national airspace.
Now that Part 107 is effective, aspiring drone operators can look forward to a more flexible process compared to the limitations of Section 333 exemptions. “For example, rather than obtaining a Part 61 airman certificate, UAS operators may simply pass a knowledge test to obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate,” the FAA says. That isn’t to say it hasn’t been a long time coming.
“The wait has been too long,” says Jonathan Rupprecht, a member of the American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS); a drone law attorney at Rupprecht Law P.A. in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.; and an FAA commercial pilot’s license holder.
He isn’t alone in wishing the rule could have been issued sooner. National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) Executive Director Curtis Sumner, MAPPS Executive Director John Palatiello, and Chustz Surveying Inc. Senior Project Manager Robbie Benoit agree.
“UAS is the most revolutionary new technology in surveying since GPS. The rule will create new opportunities for surveyors to use the technology to enhance the services they provide, perhaps to an even broader range of clients.”
However, the long wait was worth it in the end, according to David Day, executive vice president at Philadelphia-based Keystone Aerial Surveys Inc. The company offers aerial surveys to clientele nationwide and Day says the new rule will certainly make a positive difference.
“Overall, the removal of the 500 feet rule, the relaxing of airspace restrictions, the ability to fly higher than 400 feet [above ground level] altitude for inspections, the removal of a mandatory visual observer and the new Remote Pilot Certificate are all great concepts that will allow the UAS industry to grow,” he says. “There is an amazing amount of energy in the drone space and this rule will allow that energy to expand into the marketplace in the coming months.”
Sumner says he thinks Part 107 will result in more surveying and geospatial firms, especially small businesses, adopting drone technology.
“UAS is the most revolutionary new technology in surveying since GPS. The rule will create new opportunities for surveyors to use the technology to enhance the services they provide, perhaps to an even broader range of clients,” he says.
Becoming a Remote Pilot
Aspiring small UAS commercial pilots must be 16 years old, pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Their aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds and be registered with the FAA. Operation is limited to Class G airspace, within visual line-of-sight, under 400 feet, daylight hours, and at or below 100 miles per hour. The small UAS must yield right of way to manned aircraft, cannot fly over people and cannot fly from a moving vehicle. Operation rules are subject to waiver, however.
Those who already hold a pilot certificate issued under 14 CFR Part 61 and have successfully completed a flight review within the past 24 months can complete a part 107 online training course at www.faasafety.gov to satisfy the aeronautical knowledge test requirement. First-time pilots can take the test in person at a testing center listed at www.tinyurl.com/qa964x7.
There is no charge for the study materials or online training at www.tinyurl.com/z9gxhe9. Testing centers will charge approximately $150 for taking the knowledge test. The operation certificate is valid for 24 months, at which point the operator must take a recurrent aeronautical knowledge test to renew their remote pilot status.
Many ASPRS members love the new pilot requirements, Rupprecht says.
“The barriers to entry are greatly diminished because before you had to have a person flying the drone with a minimum of a sport pilot license, costing around $4,000 to $7,000, while this Remote Pilot Certificate initial knowledge exam will cost only $150. On top of that, the ASPRS members currently operating under 333 Exemptions are very excited to operate under Part 107.”
According to the FAA, general areas an applicant should know for the exam include:
- Regulations on certificate privileges, limitations and flight operation
- Types of airspace that can be flown in and their operating requirements
- Flight restrictions affecting small drones
- Aviation weather sources and how weather affects small drones
- Carrying a load and how it impacts performance
- Emergency procedures
- Crew resource management
- Radio communication procedures
- Determining drone performance
- Effects of drugs and alcohol
- Aviation decision-making and judgment
- Airport operations
- Maintenance and pre-flight inspection procedures
The FAA says those operating a drone under a Section 333 exemption can continue to do so, following the conditions and limitations within it, until the exemption expires. If an operator chooses to fly under Part 107, he or she must obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate and follow all the operating rules of Part 107.
As for airworthiness compliance, because of the significant risk mitigation provided by Part 107, an airworthiness certification requirement would not provide sufficient additional mitigation to justify the costs of requiring all small UAS operating under the rule to obtain airworthiness certification, the FAA says.
The new way seems to be more clearly defined and allows commercial operators to operate much quicker, according to Benoit, with New Roads, La.-based Chustz, a surveying firm that specializes in LiDAR surveys, conventional land surveys and hydrographic surveys.
“In some cases, filing for a 333 or an amendment could take four months or longer. For example, our initial filing of the Section 333 exemption took four months for approval. Our initial amendment filing to that exemption took seven months.”
The new rule is a big deal, Rupprecht says.
“Before this came out, the only cost-effective route to being legal in the eyes of the FAA was the 333 Exemption process. This came with many burdensome restrictions, which made it difficult for surveyors to use. … All of those restrictions are not in Part 107, which provides for greater operational flexibility than before and lower operating costs, because they won’t have to pay for a second person to be a visual observer for every flight.”
Day agrees that the new requirements are more sensible and appropriate for UAS operation as opposed to manned aircraft operation.
“The ability for a person to obtain a license without having to solo an aircraft injects a level of sanity to UAS operations. Testing an applicant thoroughly on airspace, weather, flight dynamics, etc., will be important for safe and professional operations, but this rule will open up the skies for many.”
The FAA is offering a process to waive some restrictions if an operator proves the proposed flight will be conducted safely under a waiver.
Sections of Part 107 that an operator can request a waiver for include:
- Section 107.25: Operation from a moving vehicle or aircraft (No waiver of this provision will be issued to allow the carriage of property of another by aircraft for compensation or hire)
- Section 107.29: Daylight operation
- Section 107.31: Visual line of sight aircraft operation (No waiver of this provision will be issued to allow the carriage of property of another by aircraft for compensation or hire)
- Section 107.33: Visual observer
- Section 107.35: Operation of multiple small UAS
- Section 107.37(a): Yielding the right of way
- Section 107.39: Operation over people
- Section 107.41: Operation in certain airspace
- Section 107.51: Operating limitations for small unmanned aircraft
According to the FAA, waiver processing times will vary depending on the complexity of the request. The administration encourages applicants to submit waiver requests in advance of when they need a waiver — 90 days is strongly encouraged. Applicants will be notified via email about the outcome of their waiver processing.
Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are allowed with air traffic control (ATC) permission. Users can request airspace permission through an online web portal on the FAA’s UAS website.
“The ability to apply for waivers for nearly any part of the rule will make innovation and creativity flourish, but assure the aviation community and public that it will be done in a safe and responsible manner,” Day says. “Night flights, higher altitude flights and flight over people are all aspects of Part 107 that could be waived for specific cases if the FAA sees fit.”
While the existence of the new rule is huge and the flexibility of it gives geospatial professionals more wiggle room, without an established set of consequences for those who do not comply, it can’t be assumed that the requirements will be taken seriously, according to Palatiello and Day.
“Hopefully these rules coincide with an enforcement initiative,” Day says. “Otherwise, I believe many will continue to ignore the rules or operate ‘in the spirit’ of Part 107, making it very difficult to compete as a commercial entity closely following Part 107.”
The FAA says it promotes voluntary compliance by educating individual UAS operators about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws.
“We also have a number of enforcement tools available to address unauthorized use of UAS, including warning notices, letters of correction and civil penalties. We may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a UAS in a way that endangers the safety of the national airspace system.”
While the new rule on small UAS is a huge step in the right direction that helps both clarify and ease operational requirements, it doesn’t address everything, and the FAA has plans to continue fine-tuning it. The administration says two major areas the rule doesn’t cover are beyond visual-line-of-sight operations and operations over people.
“We have already started rulemaking projects in these areas. We are also conducting research in our Pathfinder initiative,” the FAA says.
Another important topic, privacy, has been assigned to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the FAA says. NTIA published their report on May 18.
“Building on the NTIA’s best practices, the FAA will provide all drone users with recommended privacy guidelines in the UAS registration process and through the FAA’s B4UFly mobile app. The FAA also will educate all commercial drone pilots on privacy during their pilot certification process and will issue new guidance to local and state governments on drone privacy issues,” the FAA says.
With respect to flight over people, Palatiello says MAPPS would like to see more clarification on the topic and a waiver process to permit flights over persons. Sumner agrees, saying that the rule has created an open UAS environment that places those operating in a truly professional manner in a situation of needing to provide comprehensive notification and/or education to affected property owners and the public for the sake of perception and safety.
Rupprecht says his biggest question is: how will this affect state and local laws seeking to regulate drones? He says states, counties, cities and towns are starting to regulate small UAS operation, creating a patchwork of drone laws across the U.S.
“Some towns completely ban drones while others are completely silent on the issue,” he says. “The local laws pop up like mushrooms and require you to file extra paperwork and pay for permits. … The FAA, in Part 107, and Congress, in the latest FAA extension bill, both kicked the can down the road on answering if Part 107 preempted the state and local laws regulating drones. Congress won’t address another FAA extension until around July to September of 2017, which means the only answers we will have in the short term will be from the courts.”
While the FAA says it is working to polish visual line-of-sight guidelines and waivers are available upon discretion, Rupprecht and Palatiello point out the need for increased clarification on the topic. “How long before we can start doing beyond visual line-of-sight flying in a cost-effective manner?” Rupprecht asks. “Part 107 has a waiver process, which will allow beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations, but it is unknown at this time what the costs and timelines for obtaining such waivers will be. Conducting BVLOS operations will be another great tool in the toolbox.”
Palatiello says he is also waiting to see the rules governing the flying of drones at higher altitudes, while Benoit says he is looking forward to increased weight limits.
“With respect to our larger UAS, which carries a LiDAR payload, we are currently limited to 28 minutes of flight time. This could be increased if larger batteries could be utilized, but the current 55-pound limit prevents us from doing this,” Benoit says.
Reaching New Heights
“This is just our first step,” the FAA says. “We’re already working on additional rules that will expand the range of operations.”
Key geospatial associations aren’t done with drones yet either. Sumner says NSPS will continue to engage with the FAA, stay informed of new regulations, assist state organizations with opposition to any adverse legislation in state legislatures, and provide education to members. Palatiello says MAPPS will stay committed to its liaison with the FAA and advocate for the next set of rules in addition to educating members on laws, technologies, applications, markets and operational issues. Rupprecht says ASPRS plans to continue its involvement with the beyond-visual-line-of-sight aviation rulemaking committee and provide valuable input.
He says drones aren’t the next big thing, they’re the big thing now, and as more surveying companies recognize the capabilities of small UAS, there will be a prominent growth in popularity of the technology in the surveying profession.
Day expects his surveying business to continue growing, as the Keystone team is able to say “yes” to so many more projects. He says his team expects to purchase several more systems in the coming six to 12 months and that they stand ready to meet the survey demand as it increases.
Day points out that those who may have been working already without pilot certificates now have a framework for legal operations and those who have been waiting can now accurately judge the costs of entering the domain.
“The question will always be the return on investment. Will surveyors be able to generate deliverable data in a way that is less costly than current methods? This will depend on the quality of the sensors they fly, the software they use to process and their ability to use the software properly. … Keystone will be moving forward with more aircraft and locations of services in expectation of a busy fall season under Part 107 rules. 2017 may be the most important year for determining the role UAS will play in survey, mapping and all of geospatial.”
Aspiring commercial small UAS operators with questions about the process of becoming a remote pilot are encouraged to contact the FAA by phone at 844-FLY-MY-UAS or by email at UAShelp@faa.gov.
UAS Commercial Pilot – By the Numbers
Here’s a quick guide to the new small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) commercial remote pilot requirements:
• Pilot must be at least 16 years old.
• Pilot must pass aeronautical knowledge test.
• Aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds.
• Aircraft must be registered with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
• Operation is limited to Class G airspace.
• Operation must be within visual line of sight.
• Operation under 400 feet.
• Operation during daylight hours.
• Operation at or below 100 mph.
• sUAS aircraft must yield to manned aircraft.
• sUAS cannot fly over people.
• sUAS cannot fly from moving vehicle.
• Operation rules are subject to waiver.