FAA Small Drone Rule Comment Period Ends with Thousands of Submissions

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

The comment period for the Federal Aviation Administration’s proposed small drone rule closed with approximately 4,500 submissions, said an FAA official April 28.

Theproposal — which is intended to create a regulatory framework for the commercial operation of unmanned aerial systems in the national airspace — was released in February after years of delays. The 60-day period gave members of the public until April 24 to comment on the rules.

“The proposed rule … covers many potential small UAS operations and offers a flexible framework for the safe use of these systems while accommodating future innovation,” said Robert Pappas, special rules coordinator at the FAA’s UAS Integration Office. “As proposed, the United States would have one of the most flexible UAS regulatory frameworks in the world.”

The agency will spend at least the next year and half combing through the submissions, after which a final small drone rule may be released or a revised proposal may be issued.

“As we work to finalize the small UAS rule, we will continue efforts on future UAS integration plans,” Pappas said during a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. This includes working with industry partners tobetter educate operators about safe and responsible UAS operations, he said.

Some key provisions of the proposed rule included the barring of nighttime and beyond visual line-of-sight operations. Operators would also be required to pass a knowledge test and obtain a UAS operator certificate.

Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said the association had recently submitted its own comments to the FAA.

“We’d like the FAA to consider nighttime operations. We’d like to be able to go beyond visual line of sight for certain things where we can develop and demonstrate equivalent levels of safety,” Wynne said.

In 2012, Congress ordered the FAA to safely integrate small UAS into the national airspace by September 2015. The agency has been repeatedly accused of dragging its feet and has missed key deadlines, but officials insist that while commercial drones will not be freely flying in the NAS this September they have made significant progress.

Pappas noted that since the 2012 FAA Reauthorization and Modernization Act, the agency has released a comprehensive five-year UAS roadmap and opened six U.S. test sites where it is currently collecting data that will help with integration.

Additionally, Pappas pointed to the agency’s work with Section 333 regulatory exemptions that allow certain drone operators to fly commercially. The FAA has approved nearly 250 such exemptions since September, he said.

“Their operations do not pose a risk to others operating in the NAS, in the general public or to national security,” he said. “These operators are conducting operations every day, making movies, inspecting critical infrastructure, marketing real estate, aerial mapping, surveying, inspecting agriculture, improving railroad safety and many, many other amazing applications.”

The agency intends to speed up its process and grant exemptions faster, he said.

"We learned a great deal from the earlier petitions we assessed and a little more than a month ago we reviewed the lessons learned and streamlined the exemption process,” he said. “As a result, the FAA is issuing dozens of additional exemptions on a weekly basis.”

Demand for the Section 333 exemption has remained “remarkably high,” he noted.

While the exemptions are welcome, “this is of course no way to regulate,” Wynne said. Releasing the final UAS rule will be of utmost importance. A 2013 forecast by AUVSI found that after 10 years of legalized commercial drone operations, more than $83 billion would be pumped into the economy and 103,000 new jobs created.

Currently, recreational drone users are free to fly in the national airspace, so long as they practice safe and responsible flying and avoid prohibited airspace.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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