Reaction to the FAA’s long-awaited proposed rules for small unmanned aircraft has been guardedly positive, with advocates welcoming the relaxed certification standards while expressing concern that operating restrictions could hinder commercial use.

Associations representing manufacturers, general aviation and airlines welcomed the proposed regulations, made public Feb. 15, but urged the FAA to expedite the final rule, which some estimate could take up to three years because of the high number of public comments expected.  The agency also issued a summary of the major provisions of the proposed rules.

Under the new proposed Part 107, unmanned aircraft under 55 lb. will not require airworthiness certificates and operators will not need pilots’ licenses for small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS). But operations will be restricted to daylight, under 87 kt. (100 mph.) and 500 ft. and within unaided—except for corrective lenses like glasses—visual line-of-sight of the operator. “This is because spectacles and contact lenses do not restrict a user’s peripheral vision while other vision-enhancing devices may restrict that vision,” FAA explains in the draft rule’s preamble.

SUAS will not be allowed to fly over people not directly involved in the operation. The proposed rule does not allow the commercial carriage of cargo, such as the package-delivery services envisaged by Amazon and Google, but the FAA is seeking public comment regarding whether such operations should be allowed within the other constraints of the rule.

The proposed rule “addresses two basic safety issues: keeping UAS well clear of other aircraft and mitigating the risk to people and property on the ground,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says.

“The proposed rule offers a very flexible framework that provides for the safe use [of small UAS] while also accommodating future innovation in the industry,” adds FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

The FAA is also seeking comment on whether it should create a separate “micro-UAS” classification for vehicles weighing no more than 4.4 lb. Limits being considered include a maximum speed of 30 kt, altitude of 400 ft., distance from the operator of 1,500 ft., and that the vehicle should be made of frangible materials to minimize collision damage.

“We are asking the public if such a category, and special rules to govern [micro unmanned aircraft], should be in the final rule,” Huerta says.

SUAS up to 55 lb. will be allowed to operate in Class G uncontrolled airspace, but be barred from Class A controlled airspace above 18,000 ft., and require permission from air traffic control to operate in Class B, C, D and E controlled airspace, including around airports. Micro-UAS operations, meanwhile, would be limited to Class G low-altitude airspace.

Neither a private or commercial pilot’s license, nor a medical exam, will be required to fly a small UAS. Instead, the FAA proposes an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating. This would allow the operator to fly any small UAS meeting the rules.

“This is fundamentally different to being a private pilot,” Huerta says. “A number of requirements…simply don’t apply. But what does apply is the ability to operate within airspace with other aircraft.”

The unmanned-aircraft operator would have to pass an aeronautical-knowledge test focused on airspace “rules of the air” every 24 months, be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration and obtain an operator’s certificate.

Although small UAS will not require airworthiness certification—Huerta says a certificate could take manufacturers 3-5 yr. to obtain and the pace of innovation means their UAS could be outdated by the time they obtained certification—operators will have to conduct a preflight inspection before every mission.

Brendan Schulman, who heads up New York-based law firm Kramer Levin’s unmanned aircraft systems practice, says the operator qualifications “look reasonable” and lauded FAA for not proposing an airworthiness certificate mandate. But he expressed concerns over the proposed operating restrictions. For instance, keeping SUASs in sight at all times could make inspections of large structures challenging.

Huerta says an “aggressive” research program is underway on beyond-line-of-sight operation, which requires a see-and-avoid system. He also notes that the so-called Section 333 exemption process provides a way for the agency to “consider specific uses people want to put forward as the regulatory framework evolves.”

Neither Foxx nor Huerta will be drawn on when they expect the small-UAS rule will become final, with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimating 2-3 yr. because of the high number of comments expected.

“Our objective…is to move this rulemaking as expeditiously as possible,” Huerta says.

The Regional Airline Association was among those offering general support for the proposed rules. 

“The pathway for integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems into the national airspace must be forged from the strongest of safety and training standards,” said RAA Interim President Faye Malarkey Black. “While it is exciting to welcome these technological advances, they cannot outweigh time and systems-tested assurances for the high level of safety that exist in the National Airspace System today.”

The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems describes the SUAS NPRM as “a good first step…and one that is long overdue.”