The final draft of the Federal Aviation Administration's rules for commercial drones came as a relief to many drone enthusiasts this week, providing much-needed clarity and (mostly) reasonable guidelines for flying unmanned aircraft for all kinds of purposes.
But the agency's 624-page drone rulebook, published Tuesday, also left the door open for a separate, more lenient set of rules that would apply to the smallest drones out there.
Based on the feedback it received, the FAA now says it will be releasing a new framework for what it calls "micro" UAS, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which would cover extra-small drones that are under 4 or 5 pounds in weight—and thus significantly less dangerous than their larger brethren.
In the public discussion draft of its drone rules (called a Notice of Proposed Rule Making, or NPRM) the FAA had proposed a less strict set of rules for drones in the "micro" category. But drone companies and interest groups that commented on the agency's plans argued that the rules were still far too restrictive for such tiny and relatively harmless aircraft.
For example, the current proposed rules would have required micro drones to "be made out of frangible materials that break, distort, or yield on impact," and would have forbidden them from being operated autonomously. The FAA had also controversially proposed requiring that micro drone operators maintain a constant line-of-sight with their aircraft, thus creating a blanket ban on the use of first-person view cameras and goggles commonly used in drone racing and aerial photography.
Now that the general guidelines are finally out there, the agency at least has a fairly clear template of what micro drone regulations should look like.
"The FAA agrees with the commenters who pointed out that many of the micro UAS limitations proposed in the NPRM, such as the requirement to remain more than five miles away from an airport and the prohibition on autonomous operations would, if finalized in this rule, significantly impair micro UAS operations," the FAA wrote in its new rules.
"Thus, after consideration of the comments that the proposed micro UAS restrictions would limit the utility of such operations and safety concerns that remain even with the operating limitations proposed in the NPRM, the FAA has determined that a different framework to regulate micro UAS is called for."
That new, separate set of rules for micro drones will be open to a new round of public comments, again giving private companies and the public a chance to give feedback on the FAA's proposals.
The FAA hasn't committed to a specific timeframe on the new micro drone rules, saying only that it received recommendations from the new rulemaking panel in April, and that it is "moving expeditiously" to release them. That may sound like hot air considering how long (see: years) it took for the FAA to release the current drone rules, but now that the general guidelines are finally out there, the agency at least has a fairly clear template of what micro drone regulations should look like.
In the meantime, the FAA says that commercial micro drones will be subject to all of the newly-released rules for regular commercial UAS, but also notes that ultra-light drones may be subject to waiver from some of the current restrictions.
"A very low-weight unmanned aircraft may be one mitigation that could, in conjunction with other mitigations, be used to help support a safety finding as part of a waiver-application evaluation," the FAA's guidelines states.