Yesterday, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) issued several new interim final rules related to flights of small unmanned aircraft, or drones, in the national airspace. Similarly, the FAA recently issued two Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“ANPR”) governing flights over people and at night. Typically, there is a 30-day window in the case of an interim rule or a 60-day window for an ANPR for public debate before determining if a rule shall become effective or further amendment is necessary. Therefore, absent some significant objection to the interim rules or proposed amendments, each will govern drone operations in the coming days.

You Are Now Required To Mark Your Drone

Suppose you are an avid photographer and sometimes use drones for taking pictures or video. Or, you are an enthusiast and enjoy flying your small drone around your spacious backyard. Until now, each of those operations required you to register the drone with the FAA and to place the number within an internal compartment of the drone. Among other things, the registration requirement served as a database for the FAA to use as a means to identify an owner/operator involved in an incident. For instance, you’ve probably seen or read about a drone crashing into a building or, much worse, a toddler’s face. In these cases, typically a law enforcement officer would need to search the battery or other internal compartment of the drone for the registration number. This practice raised safety concerns for first responders.

One of the major concerns of first responders was that a drone could be loaded with an explosive or a harmful agent that might be triggered through the opening of an internal compartment while looking for the registration number. In order to address this and other related safety concerns, the FAA now requires any small drone operator to mark, or label, the outside of its aircraft with its registration number. Operators should ensure that they meet this requirement for any operation that occurs after February 25, 2019.

Operation of Small Drones Over People and at Night

Earlier this month, the FAA also issued two ANPRs amending existing rules that required a Part 107 waiver, which is often a lengthy process. The first proposed amendment governs flight operations over people; for instance, over a county park or sports stadium without the need for a Part 107 waiver. The other proposed amendment governs potential flight operations at night. The new proposals would, potentially, become effective 60 days after the February 13, 2019 publication date. Yet, each operation still requires the pilot to have a remote pilot certificate under Part 107.

The most commonly sought Part 107 waiver is, by far, for night operations. Yet, most applications are rejected for a lack of information. Under the proposed amendment for night operations, the requirements are now somewhat less burdensome. The critical requirements are:

• The certified pilot must have completed current knowledge training requirements, including night operations (typically every 24 months).

• The drone must be equipped with anti-collision lighting so that it is visible in the night sky at a range of approximately three miles.

With regard to flights over people, there are three categories of permissible operations. The first category applies to flight operations over people of small drones, i.e., about a half-pound in total weight; but only if the applicable Part 107 requirements are met by the flight operator ahead of time. The latter two categories impose requirements on both the manufacturer of the aircraft and the operator. Each category factors in how many people might be under the drone’s flight path. But the categories differ with regard to, among other things, performance-based thresholds of the small unmanned aircraft. In short, there are very specific requirements for each category; and the requirements are largely dictated by how densely populated an area is over which the unmanned aircraft is flying and the air worthiness of the aircraft itself.