Skies open for drone business: a long-awaited regulatory framework for commercial operation of small UAS in the national airspace

UAS Alert


In what many are calling the defining moment for the domestic drone industry, the Federal Aviation Administration has announced the release of long-awaited rules permitting the routine use of small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) or drones weighing under 55 pounds for commercial purposes. 

Taking effect in August, these new rules will permit businesses and individuals to operate sUAS for commercial purposes without having to seek a formal FAA exemption from existing manned aviation regulations, so long as operators follow specific rules and guidelines. 

This new streamlined process should pave the way for many types of businesses to more easily take advantage of the commercial applications of sUAS in new and enhanced ways.

New streamlined piloting criteria and operational rules under 14 CFR part 107

Previous to part 107, many in the industry chided the previous regulatory approval process as burdensome and costly.   For example, under the previous process, commercial sUAS operators were required to file a costly and lengthy petition to the FAA seeking specific exemptions from existing manned aviation regulations – a process that typically took months.  Pilots operating sUAS were also required to maintain an aircraft pilot’s license which required a minimum number of flight hours in a manned aviation vehicle. 

Part 107 substantially does away with these requirements, so long as the sUAS operator − termed the Remote Pilot in Charge (RPIC) – satisfies specific piloting criteria and operates the sUAS in accordance with specific safety rules.

Among other things, the RPIC must now satisfy the following criteria:

  • be at least 16 years of age
  • be in a physical and mental condition that would not interfere with the safe operation of the sUAS
  • obtain a remote pilot airman certificate with an sUAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who holds a remote pilot airman certificate
  • pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center (or pass an online course if already possessing a pilot’s certificate under 14 CFR Part 61)
  • pass recurring aeronautical knowledge tests every two years
  • submit to a security background check with the Transportation Security Administration

Any RPIC who meets these pilot requirements may freely pilot an sUAS for commercial purposes if the following operational rules, among others, are followed:

  • sUAS must be operated within the unaided visual line of sight (VLOS) of the RPIC
  • RPIC may only operate one sUAS during any given operation
  • sUAS may only be operated commercially during daylight hours (official sunrise to sunset local time)
  • sUAS must yield the right of way to other aircraft
  • sUAS may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation, not under a covered structure, and not inside a covered stationary vehicle
  • maximum groundspeed of 100 mph (87 knots)
  • maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level (AGL) or within 400 feet of any structure
  • operations in Class B, C, D, and E airspace are permitted with air traffic control (ATC) permission and permitted within Class G airspace without ATC permission

A flexible approach to expanded uses

In another welcome development, the FAA has also announced that it will waive many of part 107’s operational requirements on a case-by-case basis, paving the way for more innovative and commercially impactful applications.  Specifically, the FAA will be “offering a process to waive some restrictions if an operator proves the proposed flight will be conducted safely under a waiver.”  Indeed, the rule makes clear that a number of the presumptive restrictions in part 107 (including the VLOS, daytime operations, and altitude and speed restrictions) are waivable if a waiver applicant “demonstrates that his or her operation can be operated safely under the terms of a certificate of waiver.”   The FAA is currently designing an online portal for operators to apply for such waivers, which will become available in the months ahead. 

Whether your business is seeking to operate under the presumptive requirements of part 107 or looks to seek a waiver to allow for expanded uses, part 107 substantially streamlines the process to domestically operate a sUAS for commercial purposes. By simplifying the regulatory process, the new rules open up the use of this technology to a larger array of businesses in multiple commercial areas, such as crop monitoring, energy infrastructure inspection, and search-and-rescue, just  to name a few. 

With these varied uses in mind, it comes as no surprise that the FAA forecasts an overall societal benefit as high as $9 billion over the next five years as a result of this technology becoming more commercially accessible via the new rules.  Those looking to take advantage of these new opportunities must be mindful of the requirements outline in part 107 and other developments on the horizon for the domestic drone industry. 

See the new rules on this page. Learn more about the new rules and their implications for commerce by contacting any of the authors.