Flight Check: UAS Regulations Go Into Effect


August 29, 2016 marks first time in United States history that the federal government will implement broad regulations for the licensing, use, and operation of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in the national airspace system (NAS). The final rule promulgated by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, Department of Transportation, entitled the Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems[1], establishes the initial framework for a rapidly growing industry once only comprised of a handful of aviation enthusiasts and hobbyists. This long awaited regulation comes at a crucial time in the UAS industry and aims to develop the use of UAS in an orderly manner that places paramount importance on the health and safety of the public.  UAS technology continues to advance at a staggering pace, and as the price-point-barrier for competitors entering the UAS market continues to drop, the FAA is faced with the challenge of protecting traditional manned aircraft.

Informally referred to as “Rule 107,” the FAA’s final rule permits civil operation of UAS for both recreational and commercial purposes. Initial commercial uses of UAS have shown promising application in industries ranging from agriculture, infrastructure monitoring, insurance, emergency search-and-rescue, weather prediction and land surveying, among others. As the capability and technology continues to advance and new practical applications continue to develop, UAS will dramatically alter the way in which companies utilize unmanned systems to boost their bottom lines.

By working closely with industry stakeholders, the FAA’s final rule is a laudable attempt to keep pace with an industry that is rapidly expanding into a multi-billion dollar commercial industry. Rule 107 focuses primarily on operations, licensing and overall applicability, but it leaves many pressing issues still unanswered: primarily, commercial enterprises that hope to provide delivery services to the public. Companies like Amazon, Google X, and Wal-Mart, with vast logistical networks and broad customer bases, have consistently lobbied for federal approval of regular consumer delivery by drone. Rule 107 explicitly prohibits “individuals or corporations, acting as ‘air carriers,’ to engage in ‘air transportation’ … [but, as] technology develops in the future, the [Department of Transportation] will evaluate the integration of more expansive UAS air carrier operations in the NAS and will propose further economic and safety regulations if warranted.” In other words, the FAA has chosen to establish initial safeguards for this industry while also signaling that it will revisit this and similar issues in the future.

Although such a prohibition arguably stifles a rapidly developing industry, it has not stopped Amazon from continuing to lay the groundwork for its Amazon-Air delivery program, which touts its potential capability of drone-delivery to customers in 30 minutes or less. This futuristic program may seem years away, but Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, confirmed as early as 2015 that the company was testing its drone-delivery program throughout the U.K. and Canada. Indeed, Amazon has been granted a new patent that provides drone-docking stations atop light and power poles, cell towers, church steeples, office buildings, parking decks and other vertical structures.[2] The activities taking place outside of the FAA’s regulatory authority may seem insignificant to some, but it is clear that significant capital resources are being expended to lay the groundwork for a vast network of UAS to be integrated into the daily transactions of the average citizen.

                Today’s UAS industry is similar in many respects to an iceberg: the public can see and comprehend the immediate application of drones, like the tip of the iceberg, but the vast capabilities of this industry rest just below the surface.  There is good reason to believe that ultimately, this immense and growing technological capacity will one day replace the status quo in traditional commercial transactions.

[1] 14 CFR Parts 21, 43, 61, et al.

[2] http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/07/19/amazon-patent-drone-unmanned-aerial-vehicle-delivery-docking-station/87298378/ 

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Rebecca D. Bullard

Rebecca D. Bullard

Rebecca represents clients primarily in labor and employment litigation and counsels clients regarding everyday employment matters. 

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