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Drones Fitted For Regulatory Collar

Federal Aviation Administration rules reportedly will require pilot certification to fly unmanned aircraft systems for commercial purposes.
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When the Federal Aviation Administration finally proposes rules for commercial drones, the agency is expected to require that drone operators be licensed.

Citing unnamed people familiar with the agency's rulemaking process, The Wall Street Journal on Monday reported that the agency's forthcoming proposed rules, anticipated by the end of the year, will require certifications for operators of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

In addition, the rules are said to limit commercial UAS flights to daylight hours, to altitudes below 400 feet, and to an area within the pilot's line of sight. So much for the dream of a drone-based delivery service from Amazon.com. What's more, the rules are said not to address the privacy implications of drones.

Current FAA rules ban commercial drone flights, except for those who have obtained specific exemptions. In June, the agency authorized the first commercial UAS flight over US territory, an AeroVironment Puma AE drone that conducted aerial surveys in Alaska for energy company BP. In September, the FAA granted a waiver allowing six Hollywood production companies to fly drones for aerial cinematography.

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The proposed rules are not expected to affect hobbyists, who are exempt from FAA regulations but are advised to follow the agency's model aircraft guidelines.

Mark E. McKinnon, a partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge, said in a phone interview that what separates hobbyists from commercial drone operators is intent. He said the specific requirements of the UAS pilot certification are not clear from The Wall Street Journal's report, noting that while ground school and airspace knowledge will be important to commercial UAS pilots, knowing how to operate the controls of a private or commercial aircraft won't necessarily be helpful when piloting a drone.

Nonetheless, McKinnon considers the certification requirement sensible.

"Ultimately, having a pilot certification requirement is necessary because that's the way the FAA regulates safety in the national airspace," McKinnon said. "If you're an unsafe flyer, they can pull your certification. They're going to want some way, if someone does something dangerous, to ground that person."

McKinnon sees the rules as helpful to the commercial UAS industry. "The uncertainty has really been a drag on the way people have thought about what they're going to do," he said, though he acknowledged that the burden of compliance -- log keeping, maintenance requirements, and the like -- might prove too difficult for small startups to manage.

McKinnon doubts the FAA will be able to issue its proposal before the end of the year, due to the review time required by Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. After the proposed rules are issued, there will be a comment period. That means final rules won't be issued for another year or two.

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