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New FAA drone rule takes effect

As the sun rose on 29 August, a rapidly growing cadre of commercial drone operators in the USA took off legally for the first time without first receiving specific permission directly from the Secretary of Transportation.

The adoption of Part 107 to the Federal Aviation Regulations allows commercial operators of unmanned air systems routine access to national airspace under certain conditions. It replaces a cumbersome exemption process that required the personal approval of head of the Department of Transportation of each flight operated for a non-recreational purpose.

“With the small UAS rule now in effect the commercial UAS industry is cleared for take-off,” says Brian Wynne, president and chief executive of AUVSI.

Despite a set of operational limits still debated by traditional aviation and UAS groups, the US Federal Aviation Administration expects more than 600,000 commercial drones to operate US airspace within 12 months of rule’s adoption.

As adopted, Part 107 allows commercial operators to fly a single drone within the line of sight of a pilot at speeds up to 100kt while remaining below 400ft in daylight over sparsely populated areas.

Some aviation groups, such as the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), argue that the rule should raise the bar for safety, requiring all commercial UAS operators to obtain a regular pilot’s license.

But UAS advocates are pushing the FAA to relax several of the restrictions, allowing operators to fly drones over people, at night and beyond the pilot’s line of sight.

The FAA plans to release a draft proposal by the end of the year that would allow commercial drone operations in populated areas, says administrator Michael Huerta. Another proposal could follow to ease the restriction on operating commercial drones beyond the pilot’s visual contact, he says.

Commercial operators are also allowed to request waivers from the Part 107 restrictions. If the operators can prove they can still operate the drones safety, the FAA is willing to consider the waivers, Huerta says.

Indeed, the FAA approved 76 such waivers in the first minutes after Part 107 took effect, with 72 involving nighttime operations. The other four allowed the FAA’s Pathfinder experiments to proceed, with the CNN news network operating drones over people, the BNSF train company operating drones beyond line of sight to inspect rails and the UAS manufacturer Precision Hawk flying extended beyond line of sight.

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