The Federal Aviation Administration has approved its first set of regulations governing the use of small, unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, in construction or other commercial operations. (FAA fact sheet.)

The new rule, which FAA and its parent, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, unveiled on June 21, covers drones weighing less than 55 lbs.  It limits UAS operations to altitudes of 400 ft and speeds of 100 mph (87 knots) during the daytime and—with anti-collision lights—at twilight.

Operators also would be required to keep the drones within their visual line of sight.

John Palatiello, executive director of MAPPS, says, "We're generally very pleased." But he adds, "We are very anxious for the next generation of regulations, including those for beyond visual-line-of-sight operations and then, of course, those for UAS that weighs more than 55 lbs. But generally this is a good first step."

DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters in a teleconference, “This is a major milestone for safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our nation’s airspace.”

Foxx added, “These aircraft truly have the potential to transform the way we fly and they offer many potential benefits to society.”

Citing such drone tasks as inspecting utility towers, antennas, bridges, power lines and pipelines in mountainous or hilly areas, Foxx said,  “In many cases, unmanned aircraft can perform these activities with much less risk than a manned aircraft that might have to fly in dangerous terrain or in bad weather.”
Under the rule, which takes effect 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register, drones cannot be operated over people, unless they are taking part directly in the flight or under a covered structure or in a covered stationary vehicle, FAA says.

Operators must be at least 16 years old, have a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be directly supervised by someone who holds that certificate.

Those seeking the certificate must pass a written aeronautical test and also undergo a security background check.

Drone operators won’t have to get an FAA airworthiness certification for their devices but must do a preflight check to ensure it is safe.

The regulation itself does not include privacy protections. But FAA said in a fact sheet that it “strongly encourages all UAS pilots to check local and state laws before gathering information through remote sensing technology or photography.”

The rule will replace a more cumbersome process under which engineering, construction or other companies seeking to use drones must apply to FAA for an exemption from the agency’s regulation. FAA had approved 5,309 commercial UAS exemptions as of June 8, according to its web page.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta explained that companies holding such exemptions will operate under them until they expire. Then the companies will fall under the new regulation.

Companies will be able to seek waivers from some of the rule’s requirements. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said waivers can’t be sought for such things as the rule’s drone-weight ceiling, or the maximum speed or altitude.

But he said the agency expects to see waiver requests for provisions that include the visual line of sight, flights over people and night operations.  Huerta added, “We do not envision this being a very burdensome process.”

Foxx indicated that more federal drone actions will be coming. “This is not the only step we will take,” he said. “There will be more steps along the way in the safe integration of UAS’s into our national airspace.”

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and aviation subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) called the FAA regulation “long overdue,” but noted that it seems to be similar to provisions in the FAA reauthorization bill that the committee approved in February.

Shuster and LoBiondo added, “Completing this rule is an important step towards full integration and fostering innovation in the growing UAS industry.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore), the transportation panel’s top Democrat, said in a statement, “While this is a significant step, it reinforces the fact that we need a comprehensive FAA bill to keep FAA moving forward on integrating drones.”

The committee’s bill has yet to come to the House floor, largely because of a controversial provision to spin off FAA’s air-traffic-control operations into a new nonfederal entity.

The Senate in April approved its FAA reauthorization measure, which has language dealing with drone safety and delineating federal and state roles in overseeing the devices.