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FAA Releases Finalized Operational Rules for Small Commercial Drones

Today, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finalized the much-anticipated rules for commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or drones). The rules were initially proposed in February 2015 and will now take effect in late August 2016. At that time, companies – ranging from real estate companies wanting to take aerial photography of properties to organizations wishing to inspect inventory or utilities – will no longer need to apply for an FAA Section 333 exemption for routine commercial drone use as long as their operations comply with the new rules. Specific operational limitations will include:

  • Any UAS must weigh less than 55 pounds.
  • Only visual line-of-sight operations are allowed.
  • No flight will be permissible over people who are not involved in the UAS operation.
  • Daylight-only operation is required, except twilight (30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset) operations for aircrafts specially equipped with anti-collision lighting.
  • The maximum ground speed is 100 mph.
  • The maximum altitude is 400 feet above ground level unless within 400 feet of a structure.
  • Operations in Class G airspace is allowed without Air Traffic Control (ATC) permission. However, operation in Class B, C, D, and E airspace is only allowed with ATC permission.
  • Pre-flight inspection of a UAS is required.

The rules also establish a “remote pilot in command” position requiring a person operating a small UAS to either hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who possesses one. To qualify for such a certificate, a person must complete testing or training provided by the FAA, be vetted by the TSA, and be at least 16 years old. And although airworthiness certification is not required for UAS, the remote pilot in command must conduct a pre-flight check of the small UAS to ensure it is in good condition for safe operation.

Nilan Johnson Lewis product liability and personal injury attorneys Sheila Kerwin and Brian Johnson advise organizations on risk assessment related to commercial drone use and will be presenting at the InterDrone conference this September in Las Vegas. Kerwin says that companies may continue to operate under any Section 333 Exemptions and Certification of Authorizations (COAs) until they expire as long as all limitations set out in the Exemption or COA are followed. If operating under the new rules, a waiver will have to be obtained for any operations outside of the restrictions set forth in those rules. Companies that have previously filed for Section 333 Exemptions, but not yet received approval, will be contacted by the FAA regarding the status of their pending petitions.

“The new rules will go a long way at streamlining routine commercial drone operations. However, for non-routine operations, many of the restrictions can be waived if the applicant demonstrates that the operation can be conducted safely under the terms of a certificate of waiver,” said Kerwin. “Once the rules become effective in August, the FAA website will have a portal available for waiver applications.”

For insights and questions regarding the newly released FAA safety rules or any other aspect of registering for or operating drones for commercial use, contact Sheila Kerwin at 612.305.7515 or, or Brian Johnson at 612.305.7506 or

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