The NCSL Blog


By Ben Husch

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Tuesday told commercial drone pilots what they can and can't do with their small, unmanned aircraft.

The FAA has released the first operational rule for routine commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or drones).

The new rule, which goes into effect in late August, offers safety regulations for unmanned aircraft drones weighing less than 55 pounds that are conducting nonhobbyist (commercial) operations.

Specifically, the final rule requires drone pilots to keep an unmanned aircraft within visual line of sight and that UAS operations are only allowed during daylight hours. A drone can operate during twilight if the drone is equipped with “anti-collision lights.”

The new regulations also establish altitude limits, speed restrictions and other operational limits, such as prohibiting flights over unprotected people on the ground who aren’t directly participating in the UAS operation.

Further, the person actually operating a drone must be at least 16 years old and have a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating, or be directly supervised by someone with such a certificate. To qualify for a remote pilot certificate, an individual must pass an aeronautical test.

One outstanding question surrounding drone activities the rule does not address, is the issue of federal pre-emption of state and local drone laws. The rule specifically chose not to address this by noting that the “FAA determined that specific regulatory text addressing pre-emption is not required in the final rule.” Additionally, the rule notes on numerous occasions that a drone pilot may need to comply with specific state and local drone laws, depending upon how the operator is using the drone.

Unfortunately, the Senate approved an FAA reauthorization earlier this year with a provision (section 2152) that would fully pre-empt state and local drone laws. It does not appear that the House will follow suit, and a short-term extension will likely push this issue into the fall or, potentially, to  2017.

NCSL also just released a wide ranging report on drones, “Taking Off: State Unmanned Aircraft Systems Policies,” which features comprehensive details on the many topics state legislatures have explored, including pre-emption, privacy implications, hobbyists, insurance, commercial and governmental uses, criminal penalties for misuse, uses related to hunting and fishing, security concerns and studies and task forces. 

Ben Husch is the director of NCSL's Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.