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FAA releases new drone rules

While usage of drones within the construction industry will increase with the new FAA regulations, firms need to exercise care.

Back in June, new rules covering a broad spectrum of commercial uses for drones weighing less than 55 pounds were put in place. The Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS requirements, are contained in Part 107 of the FAA rules. The rules take effect August 29, 2016, with a fact sheet available for a summary of the changes.

The new rules allow small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or drones) to operate for non-hobby and non-recreational purposes. By statute, a small drone is an unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds, including the equipment necessary for the safe and efficient operation of the aircraft. With these new rules the FAA has begun the next phase of integrating small drones into the National Airspace System.

Some examples of possible small drone operations that can be conducted under the new regulations include:

  • power-line/pipeline inspection in hilly or mountainous terrain;
  • antenna inspections;
  • bridge inspections;
  • aerial photography; and
  • wildlife nesting area evaluations.

The regulations require pilots to keep a drone within visual line of sight. Operations are allowed during daylight and during twilight if the drone has anti-collision lights. The new regulations also address height and speed restrictions. The maximum allowable altitude is 400 feet above the ground, but higher if the drone remains within 400 feet of a structure. The maximum speed is 100 mph. The drone cannot fly over anyone who is not directly participating in the drone’s operation, under a covered structure, or inside a covered stationary vehicle. Operations from a moving vehicle are allowed only if the drone is flying over a sparsely populated area.

Operations in Class G airspace are allowed without air traffic control permission. Class G airspace was formerly known as Uncontrolled Airspace and is the airspace where commercial air traffic is not present.

The drone can carry an external load if it is securely attached and does not adversely affect the flight characteristics or ability to control the aircraft. For the first time the FAA will allow small drones to transport property for compensation within state boundaries provided the drone (including its cargo) weighs less than 55 pounds total. Some exceptions apply; for instance, small commercial drone use is still prohibited in the District of Columbia.

There are still pilot certification requirements. Under the new regulations, operators need a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating, or be under the direct supervision of a person who holds such a certificate. And the TSA will conduct a security background check of all remote pilot applications prior to issuance of a certificate.

Safety is still a major concern and operators are responsible for ensuring that a drone is safe before flight. The remote pilot will have to perform a preflight visual and operational check of the small drone to ensure that safety-pertinent systems are functioning properly. This includes checking the communications link between the control station and the drone. Of course, the drone must also be properly registered.

The new rules do not specifically deal with privacy issues in the use of drones and the FAA does not regulate how drones gather data on people or property. Operators are encouraged by the FAA to check local and state laws before gathering information through remote sensing technology or photography. As part of a privacy education campaign, the agency will provide all drone users with recommended privacy guidelines as part of the drone registration process and through the FAA’s B4UFly mobile app. The FAA will also 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 drone pilot has to comply with several other provisions of the rule. The pilot must make the drone available to the FAA for inspection or testing on request, must provide any associated records required to be kept under the rule, and must report to the FAA within 10 days any operation that results in serious injury, loss of consciousness, or property damage (to property other than the drone) of at least $500.

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