The Truth About Drone Delivery No One Is Talking About

So when will drone delivery become a reality? It would be sweet to order stuff online and get it dropped off super quickly. But are there any problems holding up drone delivery from being widely done? Yes.

I’ll cut through the noise and help you understand the real reasons (the ones that no one is talking about) as to why drone delivery is taking longer than we expect.

Article Table of Contents

Background on the Drone Delivery Craze

Drone delivery has been all over the news with Amazon being the first to announce the projected use of drones to make deliveries. Others have followed the trend and announced deliveries such as the drone burrito delivery, the drone pizza delivery, etc.

In 2015, Dave Vos, the former head of Google’s Project Wing, said to an audience, “Our goal is to have commercial business up and running in 2017[.]”  Fedex, UPS, DHL, and Walmart have announced they are interested in drone delivery. Then, as if we hadn’t enough drone delivery buzz, Amazon published on December 14, 2016 a video showing their first customer delivery using a drone.

Up until August 29, 2016,  we only had the Section 333 exemption process (now the 44807 process), the public certificate of waiver or authorization (which is statutorily prohibits commercial operations), or the airworthiness certificate process coupled with a certificate of waiver or authorization – all three are difficult to operate under in reality and only two allow commercial operations. Thankfully, Part 107 went into effect on August 29, 2016 and is far less restrictive than the previous three options. This is why you might have noticed that after August 29th, the drone delivery announcements and the accompanying photos in the U.S. have started to look closer to what we envision a drone delivery should look like.

In April 2019, Wing Aviation LLC (a subsidiary of Alphabet) obtained a single pilot Part 135 air carrier operating certificate. In October 2019, United Postal Service (UPS) obtained the highest level (standard certificate) of Part 135 air carrier operating certificate.

Benefits of Drone Delivery

Medical Delivery. The idea of drone deliveries, in general, is not only just delivering potato chips but also for more legitimate humanitarian purposes. A great example of this is the company Matternet, which partnered with UNICEF to do drone delivery in Malawi with the end goal of developing low-cost delivery of blood samples from children to be tested so medical drugs can be given to them when needed and in time. John Hopkins University has been doing blood drone delivery tests and published their findings in a medical journal.  Zipline has also done many humanitarian missions in Africa– they can save money, time, and lives.

Time Savings. A drone has very little chance of encountering a traffic jam scenario compared to ground transportation. Time-critical missions would best be performed by a drone that is reliable and far more cost effective than a manned helicopter operation.

Able to Get to Hard to Reach Places Quickly.  This is great for delivering medications or life-saving packages at very precise locations.

Positive Public Perception. Drone delivery is really a small portion of the drone market, but thanks to Amazon, it is the “face” of the commercial drone industry. This has gone a long way to clean up a lot of the public stigma about the drone industry.  People tend to think of Amazon delivery, not predator drones. Kudos to Amazon for changing that. These drone delivery announcements have worked so well that when I tell people I’m a drone lawyer, I almost always get asked about when drone delivery will become a possibility for everyone. My answer is: not anytime soon…..and it isn’t because of one of the most frequently raised issues which is privacy.

Privacy Issues –Frequently Raised, but not a Drone Delivery Legal Barrier.

Many are concerned about drones doing deliveries where they fly over residential neighborhoods and potentially capture data of people. I don’t think privacy issues are going to be a barrier because of the following reasons:

(1) In the terms of service, legal language will be used to the effect that says it’s cool with the property owner to have the drone descend over their house and drop off the package.

(2) Missy Cummings, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University, provided one potential solution of drone delivery companies and other companies partnering for delivery points. “Perhaps Starbucks could be your intermediary point.”

(3) Amazon’s patent on drone docking stations (attached to light poles or cell towers) won’t have property/privacy issues because that will all be taken care of in a contract agreement with the cell tower and power companies.

(4) Drones flying at 400 feet can be argued to be in public areas. See the Florida v. Riley U.S. Supreme Court case saying, “there is reason to believe that there is considerable public use of airspace at altitudes of 400 feet and above[.]” When you descend below 400ft, it would be a weaker position to defend regarding privacy claims. This would be heavily influenced by state and federal circuit law.

(5) Part 135 air carriers are protected by the Airline Deregulation Act that prevents states from enforcing laws “related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier.” 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1).

These points above are not justifications to completely ignore the privacy issue. I think is a legitimate issue that companies would do well to consider but it is not a barrier.

Most Drone Delivery News is of Operations Either Overseas or Within Visual Line of Sight

Most of what you have seen in the news is either in other countries, with different laws, or in rural areas of the U.S.

Some of the companies are just doing deliveries to themselves, not others.

Some are just doing visual line of sight drone operations under Part 107.

Even though things have become better because we have Part 107 and the new update to Section 44807, areas of the law are slowing down drone delivery at large scale.

Drone Delivery Problems

Problem 1: FAA’s Part 107 Drone Regulations

These are the drone regulations that went into effect on August 29, 2016.

Part 107 does NOT allow air carrier operations. “‘[A]ir carrier’ means a citizen of the United States undertaking by any means, directly or indirectly, to provide air transportation.”[1] “‘[A]ir transportation’ means foreign air transportation, interstate air transportation, or the transportation of mail by aircraft.”[2]  Bummer.

One interesting point is that Matternet did obtain approval to fly package delivery under Part 107.

Why? They were flying for one hospital company in one area and it was extremely limited. The Department of Transportation basically determined this was not an air carrier since it was so limited.

Here is where things start to get limiting under Part 107 for drone delivery:

Following up on the last point, where are the most customers? Near cities.

What are near cities? Airports….everywhere. Let’s just pull some data from Arizona’s Amazon fulfillment distribution centers. Taxjar’s blog listed five address in Arizona (but it really is only four buildings).

  • #PHX3 – 6835 W. Buckeye Rd. Phoenix, AZ, 85043 – Maricopa County
  • #PHX5 – 16920 W. Commerce Dr. Goodyear, AZ, 85338 – Maricopa County
  • #PHX6 – 4750 W. Mohave St. Phoenix, AZ, 85043 – Maricopa County
  • #PHX7 – 800 N. 75th Ave Phoenix, AZ, 85043 – Maricopa County

I took these addresses and plugged them into the sectional map (green stars with green arrows) which shows us all the airspace in the Phoenix area. Calm down. I made it easy for you. I used to say to my flight students when I was flight instructing that these maps were like a form of job security because they are confusing to read. I marked out the areas where the drones cannot fly under Part 107 in red, unless they have an authorization or waiver.

drone-delivery-amazon-fullfilment-center-arizona

Two of the fulfillment centers are in controlled airspace and would require an authorization or waiver to just take off.

What I think is the most limiting of all the regulations is the drone must be within line of sight of the pilot in command[3] This is an extremely important point.

Drones, due to their size, are only able to be seen out to a certain distance under a best case scenario. This can be estimated. I have a best case scenario visual line of sight calculator I built. You can plug in the dimension and an estimated best case scenario max range will be generated. Using that calculator, a drone that has a cross section of 14 inches can, in a best case scenario, can only be seen out to 4,010 feet. From an economic standpoint, you have to go beyond line of sight to reach the greatest number of potential customers per unit. Using the 14 inch cross section drone scenario, consider the two outcomes:

  • Visual line of sight only – 0.45 square miles.
  • Beyond visual line of sight limited by a max radio line of sight of 2 nautical miles – 4.1 Square Miles

But the big problem here is that Part 107 does not allow Part 107 package delivery operations under a beyond visual line of sight waiver. You’ll need to fly outside of the Part 107 regulations all together which then triggers ALL sorts of other regulations many have never heard of such as Part 91, Part 119, Part 135, etc.

Also, if you are interested in learning about how to read charts and understand airspace, check out the Airspace & Chart Reading for Drone Pilots Course I made over at Rupprecht Drones which teaches you how to do a pre-flight review of airspace, airspace classifications, basic operational requirements, airspace resources, examples, and more! This course has over 40 videos, 114 multiple choice questions, and a checklist to help you review what you need to check before you fly. Airspace and chart reading is tested on the initial and recurrent Part 107 Remote Pilot Exams, and this course can be beneficial when studying for those exams.

Problem 2: FAA’s Section 44807 Exemption for Commercial Drone Operations

Part 107 does not allow BVLOS drone delivery to the general public. The other way is to fly under Part 91 which requires the aircraft to be airworthy. Here is the problem: there are no drones with airworthiness certifications. The way around this is the operator obtains a Section 44807 exemption determination from the Department of Transportation saying the drone doesn’t need an airworthiness certificate.

It’s a lengthy process and requires a lot of paperwork.

On top of that, Section 44807 is only for the aircraft. You’ll still need an exemption from parts of Part 135 to carry packages for other people.  If you think the exemption process is difficult, the Part 135 air carrier certification process can be brutal.

Thankfully, Google’s Wing Aviation, LLC managed to obtain the exemption and Part 135 operating certificate.  But, the Part 135 operating certificate was for a single pilot. Yes, this was the easiest of the Part 135 certifications to obtain but this means in the near term you won’t have drones flying all over the place because it is currently just one guy. …..and he works for Google.

UPS also obtained an exemption for package delivery and also obtained a Part 135 operating certificate. UPS is what I would consider the first real operational approval because of the 4 types of Part 135 certificates, UPS received a standard operating certificate “with no limits on the size or scope of operations. However, the operator must be granted authorization for each type of operation they want to conduct.”

Problem 3: States, Counties, Cities, & Towns All Regulating Drones – Death by a Thousand Papercuts

Amazon’s business model is that the drones will provide a lower cost of delivery.

Darryl Jenkins, who worked on the economic study outlook for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said in his presentation,“Amazon will be able to push the per unit cost of delivery to at least $1.00 per package causing all other competitors to either adopt or die.” This is because of the economies of scale. But here is the problem, with a greater number of drones and drones operating across the U.S., more and more non-federal drone laws will need to be complied with.

Most people have four layers of government applying to them. These governments might have created drone laws. For example, where I used to live on Palm Beach Island, I had four layers of drone laws that applied to me: the Federal Aviation Regulations, the State of Florida’s Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act,[9] Palm Beach County’s ordinance prohibiting model airplane flights in county parks, and Palm Beach Island’s drone ordinance.

It isn’t super hard to track the state drone laws from 50 states and the federal government, but we don’t know everything that is going on with all the counties, cities, towns, villages, boroughs, etc.

It’s not a patchwork quilt of drone laws, it’s worse. It’s like a huge puzzle, and you have only a couple hundred pieces so you have to go on a scavenger hunt to find the remaining pieces, but you don’t know if you need 1,000 pieces or maybe 10,000 more and the number of pieces just keeps growing.

Also, local governments use all sorts of different terms to describe the same thing, such as unmanned aircraft, drone, model aircraft, etc. (they like to pretend they are the FAA) which further increases the times it takes to search.

These unknown areas are going to have to be checked into which means there is a need for a drone regulatory compliance department in Amazon which means $$$$. If the cost of compliance goes up, Amazon’s business model starts to make less and less sense compared to what they are already doing now.

Another aspect of these non-federal drone laws is that some of these laws are motivated not by the desire to decrease public risk, but to increase revenue. As a greater number of the non-federal regulators start catching on, Amazon and all the other companies interested in drone delivery start looking like revenue generators for local governments. Even if the local governments aren’t greedy, their focus on safety and protecting their citizens generally results in some type of “safety” requirement that needs to be proven before they issue a permit/license which further drives up operating costs for the companies.

We all understand the Amazon most likely won’t save any money at first on drone delivery, but the with a greater amount of drone laws getting created, lobbying, compliance, monitoring, insurance, permitting, etc. will all start eating further into the cost savings which means costs savings won’t be realized for years and years down the line. At a certain point, one or two guys operating out of big delivery van starts to look like a good idea again.

Because of these local drone ordinances & state laws, drone delivery suffers death by a 1000 regulatory papercuts.

But is there anything we can do to not have all the hassle with the state and local laws?  Yes.

The Airline Deregulation Act says,

“Except as provided in this subsection, a State, political subdivision of a State, or political authority of at least 2 States may not enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier that may provide air transportation under this subpart.”

49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1). The case law is very favorable to air carriers (Part 121 and 135 operators). So if you stay pure Part 107, you are subject to potential state and local laws causing trouble but if you go Part 135, even with all the crazy headaches, you still get the benefit of your operations being preempted from state and local laws related to your price, route, and service.

But obtaining a Part 135 operating certificate is not an easy walk in the park.

How to Become a Part 135 Drone Delivery Operator

A drone company wanting to be a Part 135 air carrier for drone delivery operations will need the following: (1) an exemption from all the regulations they cannot comply with (because these regulations were all originally designed for manned aircraft), (2) Department of Transportation Economic Authority to operate as an air carrier, and (3) a Part 135 operating certificate from the FAA.

(1) Obtain An Exemption From Regulations That Are Too Burdensome

Two of these exemptions have already been granted. Basically, you have to submit a petition for exemption and a bunch of support documentation showing that your operation would have an equivalent level of safety as the regulations you are trying to get exempted from.  This is all public unless you confidentially submit the supporting information and manuals. The only thing that can never be confidential is the petition for exemption.

The FAA reviews this petition and may deny, partially grant, or fully grant the petition. An exemption can be granted that lasts 2 years which then will have to be renewed over and over again. You’ll need to have a granted exemption BEFORE you’ll obtain and operating certificate.

(2) Obtain DOT Economic Authority

The FAA is responsible for safety while the Department of Transportation is responsible for economic authority. Many miss this point and it is a reason why some companies are not doing drone delivery.

Matternet had to obtain a very limited approval to fly for the hospital and Flirtey currently has a pending application because these companies do NOT meet the definition of U.S. citizen.  There are federal criminal penalties for package delivery done by non-U.S. citizens (except for narrow exceptions).

You must obtain DOT economic authority prior to being granted an FAA Part 135 operating certification.

(3) Obtain An FAA Part 135 Operating Certification for Drone Delivery

Assuming you have exemption and DOT economic authority, the 135 process is:

Phase 1 — Pre-application. This is you meet with some FAA inspectors to discuss the process and what needs to be done.

Phase 2 — Formal Application. You need to submit the application, manuals, and all the other associated documents for the FAA to review.

Phase 3 — Design Assessment. This is where you will most likely stall out. This is where the FAA reviews all the documentation, manuals, management personnel, etc. to make sure you meet all the regulatory requirements. I’ve done 6 Part 137 operator certifications and this is where things get bogged down.

Phase 4 — Performance Assessment. This is where you actually have to demonstrate things. This isn’t like Part 107 where you take some computer based exam. Real live aviation inspectors are going to come out and watch you do everything. They are going to ask you questions to determine your knowledge, and have you preform operations and maneuvers to validate your aeronautical skills. This is like the operations check ride.

Phase 5 — Administrative Functions. This is where the FAA prints out and sends you everything. This is an important time to make sure they fill out everything and all the documentation is correct. The FAA will also schedule follow up inspections to make sure you are doing what your manuals said you would be doing.

The Different Types of 135 Operating Certificates

There are four different types of Part 135 operating certificates:

Single Pilot. This is what Wing Aviation obtained. It’s one pilot for all operations. That’s it. It’s a one man band.

Single Pilot in Command. This is an operation with one pilot-in-command and up to three second-in-command pilots.

Basic Part 135. The operations are limited in size and scope. You can only have a max of 5 pilots, 5 aircraft of which there is a max of 3 different types, and some other limitations. That’s not going to work for more drone delivery operations.

Standard Part 135. This does not have a limit on size and scope BUT each type of operation must be approved.

Drone Delivery Companies (Current List Part 135 Drone Delivery Operations)

The information below is current as of July 2020.

Google Wing Drone Delivery

Wing Aviation LLC was the first to receive a 135 operating certificate. It is a single pilot operating certificate.  On their operating certificate they have 25 aircraft listed (Hummingbird V2-7000). The Richmond Flight Standards District Office is their certificate holding district office.

UPS Drone Delivery

UPS Flight Forward Inc. is the Part 135 operator and has the highest level of certification (standard). It presently has 2 Matternet M2-V9 aircraft on the certificate. The Greensboro Flight Standards District Office is the certificate holding district office for their operation.

Matternet Drone Delivery

Matternet originally obtained DOT approval to transport medical specimens at a hospital in North Carolina.  In February 2020, they obtained DOT approval to do medical specimen transportation in California.

Flirtey Drone Delivery

As of July 2020, they are trying to obtain DOT approval to do cargo delivery in Nevada. Their application is pending.

Future of Drone Delivery (Who Will Be The Early Adopters)

Those that Value Time More Than Cost

There are some industries and markets that are more concerned about time than cost such as:

(1) Those that need delicate, limited, expensive, rare types of medicine immediately because the alternative is injury or death.

(2) Those that rather just have their medications be delivered to their front yard than drive to the pharmacy while being as sick as a dog or potentially being exposed to diseases.

(3) The rich guy down by the remote lake wants an anniversary gift (that he forgot to buy) for his wife right now. Maybe this should be in the (1) category because it’s kind of life or death?

Where the Cost of Not Operating is More Expensive than the Delivery

Consider critical pieces in a costly operation. For example, a large piece of machinery broke down and there are many people that the company is paying to just sit around waiting for replacement parts. That machinery could be producing something or performing a task that is essential to generating profits. How costly is it per hour to have the machinery NOT running?

Those That Do Not Have Any Other Choice (There is no Next Best Alternative or it is Outside of Their Purchasing Power)

The drone might be the only feasible solution due to weather, disaster, lack of infrastructure, etc. (Think hurricane relief or Alaska bush pilots flying supplies into remote villages). If you are delivering to remote areas, you look at things differently. Flexport’s article discussing Matternet’s drone operations in Lesotho explained:

As Raptopoulos of Matternet points out, Google and Amazon’s plans ignore drones’ best feature: they can go where there are no roads.

“One billion people in the world today do not have access to all-season roads,” Raptopoulos told a TED audience in 2013. “We cannot get medicine to them reliably, they cannot get critical supplies, and they cannot get their goods to market in order to create a sustainable income.”

For the Matternet team, the most interesting question was not the cost per delivery. They wanted to compare the cost of the drone network to the cost of building the roads Lesotho so badly lacks.”

Drone Delivery Frequently Asked Questions

Are drones being used for deliveries?

Yes, they are currently being used at a few locations around the United States. Some operations are serving the public while others are transporting cargo for the company’s internal operations (they are not holding out to the public).

How does drone delivery work?

Most operations appear to be a fixed brick and mortar location that serves as the launching point. Most operations appear to be within line of sight. The customers are in the surrounding areas. A customer would order online and the drone delivery the payload to the customer at a pre-determined location.

What companies use drone delivery?

UPS is presently using them in The Villages, Florida.

Where is drone delivery legal?

It is presently legal in the United States. The issue is not legality but jumping through all the legal hoops. In other countries, cargo transportation is legal but the issue is integrating drones into the regulations that were designed originally for manned aircraft operations.

Will drone delivery happen?

Yes, it’s a matter of time but the complex regulatory environment is slowing things down. Only a handful of large companies have the cash to attempt this and there are few attorneys who can assist in navigating these areas.

Conclusion:

Many have written on this topic because they see the technology taking off. They see the progress in the technology that many have made and assume that drone delivery will be allowed soon. They get the “West Coast” mindset where they think if enough money and technology are thrown at the problem, it will be fixed regardless of the law. Additionally, most writing on or marketing drone delivery do not understand all the legal issues.

Aviation is an “East Coast” industry where the laws out of D.C. will heavily influence the business. Aviation is an extremely regulated environment. The economics are determined AFTER the regulations are applied. The faster the companies operating in this area realize that fact, the better off they will be so that they can actually do these types of operations.

[1] 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(2)

[2] Id. at (a)(5).

[3] 14 CFR § 107.31.

[4] 14 CFR § 107.19.

[5] 14 CFR § 107.35.

[6] 14 CFR § 107.25.

[7] 14 CFR § 107.39

[8] 14 CFR § 107.41.

[9] F.S.S. § 934.50.

Fresnel Zone Calculator

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Drone Calculators & Tools

Here are some calculators I have programmed to help drone pilots.

Drone Kinetic Energy Calculator (for Multi-Rotors) – Calculates time, velocity, and foot-pounds for a given altitude.

Cloud Base Altitude Calculator (for Unmanned and Manned Pilots)  – Calculates what is the base of the altitude in feet above ground level so you can figure out how close you can get without violating the law.

Drone Operations Cost Calculator – This is great if you are starting a drone operation or drone business.

Drone Visual Line of Sight Calculator – Great for figuring out the maximum range you can see the drone before you start losing visual contact.

Under or Over 55 Pound Operations Calculator – People are having a hard time trying to figure out if they should purchase a drone that is capable of flying over 55 or one that is under. This calculator was originally designed for drone sprayers but the same 500 ft buffer zone applies to those doing cinematography, mapping, etc.

Fresnel Zone Calculator – Helps you determine how much radius you need for a specific radio frequency and distance to maintain optimal radio communications. This is important as trees and other vegetation with water absorb 2.4 GHz radio waves in the Fresnel Zone and decrease your signal strength.

Drone Sprayers: Uses, Laws, & Money Saving Tips (2020)

 

Interested in buying or using a drone sprayer?

IMPORTANT:Before you buy one of these flying sprayers, read the part of this article talking about how the law affects the economics of your operations. I’ve had phone calls with people who purchased spray drones to later realize they purchased a spray drone NOT efficient for their operations. Those were painful phone calls.

Drones are really just aerial platforms from which to do things. Most people associate drones as data collection platforms where you mount sensors such as cameras, LIDAR, etc., but drones can also be used for the delivery of all sorts of other things besides just drone package delivery or medical delivery. One great example is using the drone as a drone sprayer (a.k.a. flying sprayer). Keep in mind that there are attachments for drones to do things other than just spraying (e.g. drone granule spreader).

As of 6/16/2020, I’ve helped 16 clients obtain exemptions for agricultural aircraft operations (0 denials) and 6 clients obtain agricultural aircraft operating certificates. I’m a commercial pilot, current FAA certificated flight instructor, aviation attorney, and former professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. I distilled into this article some of the important points that I have used as I have assisted clients in successfully obtaining Federal Aviation Administration approvals to operate their drone sprayers. If you need my help with exemptions, a Part 107 night waiver, going through the 137 agricultural aircraft operator certification, please contact me for pricing.

Table of Contents:

Drone Sprayer Benefits

  • You can remove the person from the area being treated. This is a MAJOR benefit. Yes, the crew has to be around the drone while it’s being loaded but that is so trivial compared to spraying some heavily vegetated area where everyone is definitely going to get covered tripping and falling on all sorts of stuff.
  • One trip. Some operations can benefit from the small size of the drone which can be stored in the back of a truck. Instead of driving out to identify what is going on and then going back and picking up some more equipment (argo, ground rig, etc.) you can just spot spray those areas. Yes, a backpack sprayer can do that but how good is that backpack sprayer for swamp, water, rocky uneven areas, etc.? Plus, a drone sprayer can spray those areas faster than a backpack sprayer which could mean the backpack sprayer could cost you more in the long run (more injuries, more hours worked, etc.).
  • Lowers Risk Exposure. Having problems with spraying troublesome areas such as under power lines, rocky inaccessible areas, near powerlines, near towers with guidewires, near highly noise sensitive home owners who complain constantly to the FSDO (which results in ramp checks), box canyons, etc. Send in the drone. If you lose the drone, no biggy. No one is on board. If you have a current Part 137 operation, you should see how you could REPLACE risk by operating a drone instead of a manned aircraft in certain environments. Think about it guys. You send out the flagmen sometimes. Couldn’t ya just have the flagman turn around and “weed wack” the dangerous areas with the drone?
  • Able to get into areas manned aircraft cannot easily get into. Part 137 requires the operator to file a congested area plan if they are operating over a congested area. The problem is manned aircraft cannot operate like a drone. You have to fly the manned aircraft there while a drone can be driven there. This results in the manned aircraft operation having to go through the hassles of filing a congested area plan and getting it approved. I would argue that unmanned aircraft fly in between congested areas. Think about it. You could be treating golf courses, canals, ponds, lakes, etc. all in a suburban/urban environment but you are never over people or property. You drive up in your truck and launch the drone.

Drone Sprayer Examples:

I’m going to touch on the high points of each of these drone sprayer uses. Please keep in mind that each drone sprayer has its own set of unique problems, economics, laws, etc. My commentary is not an exhaustive discussion on the whole area.

A. Pollen Drone Sprayer

There is a problematic decline of bee population numbers around the United States which has been caused for various reasons. Dropcopter has stepped into this gap with a very innovative idea of using their drone sprayer to pollinate crops.

As a Digital Trends article put it,

“Pollination by drone isn’t the only alternative to insect pollination, but it may just be the most efficient current solution. Alternatives include using large tractor-mounted liquid sprayers or leaf blowers driven on quad bikes. Both of these are problematic due to the lack of reach and, in the case of liquid sprayers, the time-sensitive nature of the pollen once it gets mixed with liquid. Dropcopter’s drones, meanwhile, can cover 40 acres per hour, and can double the pollination window by also flying at night. This is one advantage they even have over bees since bees don’t fly at nighttime, when flowers remain open.”

It also appears that their Dropcopter can maybe increase yields. Dropcopter’s website says, “Dropcopter completed its patent pending prototype, and conducted the first ever UAS pollination of orchards crops, boosting crop set by 10%.” A study was completed and here are some pictures of the apples.

B. Drones for Spraying Insecticides (Mosquito Control, etc.)

Because of their ability to communicate diseases, fighting mosquitoes is a big thing around the U.S. Mosquito abatement organizations are seeking to actively use drones to help fight mosquitoes. Recently, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced the Drone Integration Pilot Program. The DOT picked ten winners, one of which is the Lee County Mosquito Control District located in Ft. Myers Florida. “The proposal focuses on low-altitude aerial applications to control/surveille the mosquito population using a 1500-lb. UAS.”  Lee County is not the only mosquito control district interested in using drones for spraying pesticides. Other control districts currently have drone sprayer programs underway.

If you are a government agency that fights mosquitoes or other pests, there is the potential for your operations to be done under a certain type of classification called a public aircraft operation which gives your operation more flexibility than non-government entities. See below for a discussion.  If you are interested in helping your mosquito control district use drone sprayers, contact me.

Mosquitoes are not the only insects you might be interested in fighting. Drone Volt created a mount to spray insecticide on hornet nests way up in trees.

C. Crop Dusting Drones (Herbicide, Fertilizer, Fungicide, etc.)

Drone sprayers seem like a good choice to be crop dusting drones but there are MANY variables here that affect whether it is a good decision for your situation or not. Factors that influence whether this makes sense or not are:

  • Type of crop,
  • Value of the crop,
  • Ground size of the crop,
  • Droplet size requirements to be placed on the crop,
  • How quickly you need to spray a particular chemical on a crop (is there a window of time?), and
  • How much liquid you need to spray.

For large areas of land, manned aircraft and ground spraying rigs make more sense based upon cost per acre compared to crop dusting drones. Read my section below on the economics to understand this fully.  For smaller pieces of land or land that is inaccessible to ground rigs or manned aircraft, it might make sense to use crop dusting drones.

D. Drone Tree Seed Planter

Drone Seed is looking to corner the market on precision forestry.  Not only can it do a potentially dangerous job of planting trees on the slopes of steep inclines but it can also potentially do it faster than by workers on foot.

E. Wind Turbine De-Icing Drone Sprayer

The Verge did an article on the company Aerones which built a large drone sprayer with some serious lifting capacity to fly up and spray de-icing fluid on wind turbine blades.  The Verge article explained:

“The craft has a tether line supplying water, which it sprays at up to 100 liters a minute (with optional de-icing coating), and another for power, meaning it can stay aloft indefinitely. Cleaning by drone costs around $1,000, compared to $5,000 and up for cleaning by climbers.

The process is good for general maintenance, but also helps increase power efficiency. If snow and ice build up on a turbine’s blades, it slows the rate at which they produce power and can even bring it to a complete halt. Aerones adds that using a drone for de-icing is both quicker and safer than sending humans up using a cherry picker”

Drone Sprayer Economics

There is far more hype to this area that is being driven by possibilities rather than economics.

Drones are mobile platforms to spray from. There are other mobile platforms such as:

  • Manned aircraft (airplanes and helicopters)
  • Ground spraying rigs (tractor pulled, truck mounted, etc.)
  • Humans (Backpack sprayer)

Each of these platforms has pros and cons that need to be weighed against the benefits of the drone sprayer.

1. Manned Aircraft (Airplanes & Helicopters) vs. Drone Sprayers

Manned Aircraft: Most drone sprayers cannot carry a large payload compared to manned aircraft.  Manned aircraft also are lower in cost per acre than drone sprayer operations. For crop spraying,  drone sprayers won’t be used for large acres of land because the spraying rate per day is also way too small compared to manned aircraft which can spray thousands of gallons in one day. This is a major point people miss. There are narrow windows of time to spray crops due to all sorts of things such as weather, chemical being sprayed, growth cycle, etc. Simply put, drone sprayers cannot spray fast enough because their tanks are small.

Drone Sprayers: Drones have the ability to service clients who have smaller amounts of land or area inaccessible to manned aircraft.

2. Ground Spraying Rigs (Tractor Pulled, Truck Mounted, etc.)

Ground Spraying Rigs: They do not have to deal with the FAA and all those hassles. They can also hold much more spraying material than a drone.

Drone Sprayers: Drone sprayers can access areas that ground spraying rigs cannot, such as uneven, steep, or inaccessible terrain or sensitive environments where the ground vehicles would damage the area or crops. Drone sprayers are lower in cost to purchase and maintain.

3. Humans (Backpack Sprayer)

Backpack Sprayer:  Super cheap to purchase ($90) compared to a drone sprayer. No FAA problems. But your workers could get covered in the chemical. Numb lips anyone?

Drone Sprayers: You can access areas with less danger to your employees. (Slip and fall anyone? Hello workers’ compensation claims.) Potentially more time efficient. Less exhausting than walking around with a hand pump sprayer. Depending on batteries and how quickly you can refill, this can be more time efficient than backpack sprayers.

So Where Do Drone Sprayers Fit In?

When you go to the home improvement store to buy some paint, you’ll notice that there are small spray paint cans, low cost electric paint sprayers, and large metal heavy duty commercial sprayers. By analogy, drone sprayers fill a sweet spot that is similar to low cost electric paint sprayers.

You have to focus on the strengths of drone sprayers to see where they shine:

  • Able to get into locations that manned aircraft, ground spraying tractors, or hand sprayers cannot access.
  • Safer than hand spraying.
  • Lower acquisition costs versus larger pieces of equipment (ground spraying tractors) or manned aircraft. Do you really need to buy that ground spraying rig?
  • Easy and low cost to transport and deploy. (Ground spraying rigs you have to drive or tow there.  Manned aircraft you have to fly to the location).
  • Able to service smaller clients that would not have hired a manned aircraft.

Can You Give Me Some Drone Spraying Examples?

  • High value crops that tend to cover smaller acres of land (vineyards, apple orchards, almond orchards, etc.).
  • Spraying pollen on higher value crops to increase crop yields.
  • Crops on terrain that is too inaccessible or inconvenient to get to with a ground sprayer yet is too small to justify hiring a manned aircraft spraying operation.
  • Herbicide spraying on rocky embankments near a water reservoir where you don’t want to endanger your employees or you have a hard time getting to the rocky areas with the ground rig.
  • Mosquito abatement in areas that ground vehicles (or boats) cannot easily get to and that don’t justify the use of manned aircraft.
  • You’re a company that is running an in-house operation testing out aerial application of chemicals or on a particular type of plant.
  • I heard a person one time say they wanted to spray 4,000 acres with a drone. I said you’ll never do that economically. Manned aircraft will be far far cheaper you’ll ever be. Do NOT think 4 farms of 1,000 acres each but 1,000 farms of 4 acres each.  You focus on what businesses are on 1-10 acres.  Nurseries, specialty crops, orchards, etc.

What About Costs? How Much Does a Spraying Drone Operation Cost?

Yes, those examples didn’t really take into account the total drone sprayer operational costs.  Here are some rough numbers you can use to go off of:

  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Related:
    • FAA Registration ($5 per drone). Good for 3 years.
    • FAA Remote Pilot Certificate Knowledge Exam ($150 per remote pilot). Aeronautical test knowledge is good for 24 months.
    • Study Material for Remote Pilot Test (Free-$250)  (I have a huge free study guide for the test located here).
    • If you are spraying anything other than just pure water,
      • You’ll need a Part 137 Agricultural Aircraft Operator Certificate ($0 per operator but will take time). Indefinite.
      • Exemption ($0 per operator but will take time and legal knowledge.) Lasts 2 years.
    • Need to spray at night? Part 107 night waiver.  ($0) Lasts 4 years.
  • Drone Sprayer Insurance. I can’t estimate this because there are many factors here.   Read my article on drone insurance before you buy some.
  • Crop Dusting Drone Sprayer & Equipment.  ($5,000-40,000)
  • Spraying Pesticide? You’ll need a state restricted use pesticide license. (Around $100 to $250). Things can cause this to fluctuate so you’ll have to check your state.)

If you need my help with exemptions, a Part 107 night waiver, going through the 137 agricultural aircraft operator certification, keep reading. I have a section down below.

Now before you start making business plans. You need to know that these drones are considered aircraft. Aircraft are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”). In addition to the FAA, other U.S. Federal laws may apply to your operation.

United States Drone Spraying Law

A. Federal Drone Spraying Law

1. Federal Aviation Regulations

Just at the get go, if you are a government agency, some of these regulations might NOT apply to you. This is completely beyond the scope of this article but I have talked about it more over here.

Part 107

Most commercial drone operators follow Part 107. There are other legal methods of getting your aircraft airborne legally but this is the most time and cost efficient. Basically, Part 107 requires the drone sprayer to be registered, the pilot to have a remote pilot certificate, and for the operations to be done according to the restrictions listed in Part 107. Click here to read up on the complete summary of what Part 107 says.

Here are the two most important things you need to know about Part 107 in relation to spraying drones:

  1. Part 107 is only for drones that weigh on take-off less than 55 pounds and
  2. You cannot carry hazardous material on the drone.

Now these are not deal breakers but you’ll need exemptions from these restrictions. Exemptions do not cost anything to file with the FAA but they do take time and legal knowledge to make sure you have identified all the regulations you need to be exempted from. If you don’t have the time or knowledge, you can hire people, like me, to help you with this.

Also keep in mind that for 55 pound + exemptions, there are documents and data the FAA will want you to submit in support with the exemption. This data might NOT be supplied by the drone sprayer manufacturers, which means you need to create it or find someone who has. See tips below for more on this topic.

Part 137 – Agricultural Aircraft Operations. 

Part 137 specifically defines the applicability of this Part of the Code of Federal Regulations. Agricultural aircraft operation means the operation of an aircraft for the purpose of:

  1. Dispensing any economic poison,
  2. Dispensing any other substance intended for plant nourishment, soil treatment, propagation of plant life, or pest control, or
  3. Engaging in dispensing activities directly affecting agriculture, horticulture, or forest preservation, but not including the dispensing of live insects.

Part 137.3 defines economic poison:

Economic poison means (1) any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any insects, rodents, nematodes, fungi, weeds, and other forms of plant or animal life or viruses, except viruses on or in living man or other animals, which the Secretary of Agriculture shall declare to be a pest, and (2) any substance or mixture of substances intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant or desiccant.

Most spraying operations fall into the applicability of Part 137 and because of such, they’ll need exemptions from sections of this part. Why? Part 137 was created a long long time ago. The regulations designed for manned aircraft do not make sense with drone sprayers. Conveniently, if you are already getting an exemption from the prohibition in Part 107 to not carry hazardous materials (like economic poisons), you can just add the sections of Part 137 that you need exempting from all into one request for exemption document.

Here is a major point that people miss. In addition to the exemption to do agricultural aircraft operations, the operator will need to obtain an agricultural aircraft operator certificate. You can thankfully pursue both the exemption and certificate in parallel to speed things up but you’ll need the exemption approval before you get inspected by the FAA as the final step in getting your agricultural aircraft operator certificate.

2. Other Federal Regulations

Keep in mind the FAA isn’t the only federal agency you might have to deal with. There is also the Environmental Protection Agency and also the Occupational and Health Safety Administration which have regulations that apply.  Discussing these regulations is way outside the scope of this article but I wanted to mention this.

B. State & Local Drone Spraying Laws

There are state and local laws that apply to aerial application spraying (manned and unmanned spraying). This is a very broad area but just know that states require you to obtain some type of restricted use pesticide license to spray any economic poisons and typically you need the certification in the category you are performing the work (aerial application).

Some states require you have your drone sprayer registered with the FAA and even the state. The state won’t issue any state registration until you also show some drone insurance on your drone sprayer. This means you won’t be able to do some type of hourly insurance set up but will have to obtain annual insurance and request a certificate of insurance to show to the state.

Local laws also might apply depending on what you are spraying, when you are spraying, and where you are spraying.

How Drone Spraying Laws Heavily Influence the Economics

A big mistake some make when getting into drone spraying is that the size of the aircraft ONLY affects the cost per acre. I cannot emphasize this enough. This is the most important point of this entire article.

A drone that weighs 55 pounds or more on take-off, will be required to fly under a different set of regulations and restrictions. Yes, the weight of the aircraft will determine what set of regulations you will fall within.These restrictions can be extremely burdensome in some environments and inconsequential in others.

The two big restrictions facing 55 pound and heavier aircraft are (1) the 500ft bubble and (2) the Blanket COA 5-3-2 airspace bubble.

The 500 Foot Bubble

Under 55 pound operations do not have the 500ft buffer zone but 55 pound and heavier operations do.

To operate a spraying drone 55 pounds and heavier, you’ll need an exemption from some of the regulations in Part 91. One of them is 91.119(c). The exemptions being given out which grant regulatory relief from 91.119(c) require under restriction “27. All flight operations must be conducted at least 500 feet from all persons who are not directly participating in the operation, and from vessels, vehicles, and structures[.]”

People really don’t fully appreciate how big of a buffer zone this is. Let this sink in.

In order to spray operating 55 pound+, the width of the field needs to be at least 500ft ON BOTH SIDES of the drone. Every road, person, house, car, etc. is a problem.

The only exceptions to the buffer zone are to the following three:

a. Over or near people directly participating in the operation of the UAS. No person may operate the UAS directly over a human being unless that human being is directly participating in the operation of the UAS, to include the PIC, VO, and other personnel who are directly participating in the safe operation of the UA.

b. Near nonparticipating persons. Except as provided in subsection (a) of this section, a UA may only be operated closer than 500 feet to a person when barriers or structures are present that sufficiently protect that person from the UA and/or debris or hazardous materials such as fuel or chemicals in the event of an accident. Under these conditions, the operator must ensure that the person remains under such protection for the duration of the operation. If a situation arises in which the person leaves such protection and is within 500 feet of the UA, flight operations must cease immediately in a manner that does not cause undue hazard to persons.

c. Near vessels, vehicles and structures. Prior to conducting operations, the operator must obtain permission from a person with the legal authority over any vessels, vehicles or structures that will be within 500 feet of the UA during operations. The PIC must make a safety assessment of the risk of operating closer to those objects and determine that it does not present an undue hazard.

So ya need to get permission. Now you’re knocking on doors like you’re a girl scout selling cookies. What if they are in the shower, out of town, in the barn, just don’t care, etc.? Bummer. You have to stay more than 500ft away. Yes, if you are doing the job for the person who owns the cow, barn, and house, you could just get that permission so that resolves that problem….but……what about their neighbors barn, house, or cow which may be near the fence?  Knock knock……Who’s there?

You…knocking and not doing what you need to be doing.

Basically, you must stay away from non-participating people and property, unless protected.

In some circumstances, this is a deal breaker for 55 pound and heavier operations which means you have to do your operations under 55 pounds under Part 107 which does not have the 500ft buffer zone.

Some choose to solve this situation with an aircraft optimized for over 55 and another optimized for under 55. Another is just have one aircraft and fly it under 55 (with less payload) in the 500ft buffer areas and go 55+ for the fields. Both scenarios would need a under 55 exemption and a 55+ exemption.

So to help you make the decision of which aircraft to purchase, I created this calculator.

Spray Drone Calculator (To Figure Out If You Should Buy an Over or Under 55 Pound Drone Due to Your Surroundings)

The Blanket COA 5-3-2 Airspace Bubble.

The blanket certificate of authorization (COA) being given out with the exemptions for 55 pound and heavier drone spraying operations say the following:

Beyond the following distances from the airport reference point (ARP) of a public use airport, heliport, gliderport, or seaport listed in the Digital – Chart Supplement (d-CS), Alaska Supplement, or Pacific Chart Supplement of the U.S. Government Flight Information Publications:
(1) 5 nautical miles (NM) from an airport having an operational control tower; or
(2) 3 NM from an airport having a published instrument flight procedure, but not having an operational control tower; or (3) 2 NM from an airport not having a published instrument flight procedure or an operational control tower; or
(4) 2 NM from a heliport.

This is what it looks like on a sectional chart for the airspace around Austin, Texas.

You can obtain approvals to fly in those red areas. The blanket COA says, “For all UAS requests not covered by the conditions listed above, the exemption holder may apply for a new Air Traffic Organization (ATO) COA at https://caps.faa.gov/coaportal.”  It just means another hoop you have to jump through if you need to fly there.

In heavily congested airspace environments, this is a deal breaker for 55 pound and heavier operations which means you have to do your operations under 55 pounds under Part 107 which does not have the 500ft buffer zone. This is the same area under Part 107 regulations. Those 3 red areas are where a COA is required under Part 107.

107-airspace-austin

When it comes to getting COA approvals. Part 107 wins. The CAPs portal above for 55+ operations is a super pain to connect to and takes longer than LAANC which is the FAA’s new way of granting COAs electronically within seconds in certain locations.

Because of these reasons, not too many people operate 55+ legally. If you go to the FAA registration database and type in different make and models of spray drones capable for flying over 55 pounds, you’ll notice very few aircraft are registered under Part 47 which is the only way you can register 55 pound+ drones. The aircraft you see are those that can legally operate 55+ and heavier in the US. Explanations for low numbers could be (1) the registrant incorrectly registered under Part 48 which is ONLY for SMALL drones, (2) the registrant chose to operate their drone under 55 pounds according to Part 107 and use the easier Part 48 online registration process (even though they could physically operate heavier), or (3) they just chose to illegally operate without registration.

A Solution!

Nothing prohibits you from having two exemptions. :)

You can have one aircraft that can operate under either one depending on the needs of the environment.

Conceptually, you “mow the lawn” with the 55+ exemption with the 500ft buffer while you “weed wack” the edges under Part 107 without the 500ft buffer zone. There are some issues you will run into if you already have one of the exemptions and you are trying to add on another, you’ll want to schedule a phone call with me so we can go into all the issues with the endorsement, manuals, LOA, etc. There are issues with jumping back and forth between the two also.

Drone Sprayer Statistics (# of Operators, Exemptions, Registrations, etc.)

Drone Spray Operators (as of 11/2019):

  • 25 Part 137 Agricultural Aircraft Certificate Operators using Drones

Exemptions (as of 11/2019):

  • 53 Exemptions for Part 107 spraying operations (Under 55 pound operations).
  • 24 Exemptions for Part 91 spraying operations. (55 pound + operations)

Registrations (as of 11/2019):

Part 47 registrations for unmanned aircraft is searchable by make and/or model. (If you fly 55 pound +, you must register via Part 47. The Part 48 database is not searchable unfortunately.). This is an important point because it tells you have many 55 pound+ aircraft are capable of legally operating in the US. Some people who purchase aircraft capable of flying 55 pound+ realize they would rather just operate under 55 pounds which means they are not as efficient.

Note: the customer registering could have put the names in incorrectly or the FAA entered them incorrectly so there could things registered incorrectly I missed. For example, there was an entry for the Yamaha REMAX when it’s correctly called RMAX.

  • 15 Yamaha
    • 5  RMAX
    • 4  RMAX Type II
    • 3  Fazer
    • 3  FAZER R
  • 2 Harris Aerial
    • 1 H18
    • 1 Stark HX8
  • 2 Homeland Surveillance & Electronics.   I searched “HSE” “Homeland” “HS&E” for the manufacturer.
    • 1 AG MBA PRO
    • 1 AG V8A+ PRO RTK
  • 1 Pyka
  • 1 Kiwi Technologies
  • 0 Joyance
  • 0 DJI with their T16

Drone Sprayers (and Spreaders) for Sale

Right now, there are some companies that are manufacturing spraying drones. The drone sprayers listed below are ones I’m familiar with. I didn’t do an exhaustive search for all that is out there.

Very important point: if any of the manufacturers or resellers refer you to other companies for legal or consulting assistance, ask them if they are receiving referral fees from that person or companies. You want to find out if the recommendation was because the consultant or attorney was the best person for the job, not because they were giving kickbacks. As a Florida-barred attorney, I’m prohibited from providing referral fees to non-attorneys and have never done so.

Some of these companies also have foggers and spreaders that mount onto the aircraft.

Keep in mind you don’t just buy the drone sprayer. You’ll be also thinking about purchasing a transport case, extra batteries, training, etc.

Tips on Starting a Drone Sprayer Operation (Read This Before You Buy)

1. Work With an Attorney

A. Attorney Client Relationship Protects Sensitive Conversations.  The attorney-client privilege protects conversations between the client and the attorney. This allows for open conversations regarding the legality of the operations.  “Was I supposed to do……..”  or “We just received a letter of investigation” are supposed to be brought up in the open and honest attorney-client discussion. There are alot of regulations that apply. Do you really want to rely on a non-attorney to give you legal advice? You’re the one getting the fines, not the consultant.

Please note that it is ATTORNEY client relationship and not consultant client relationship. The FAA, federal and state law enforcement, plaintiff’s attorneys, etc. can subpoena your consultant to testify against you. They can’t do that with an attorney except for really rare situations. The consultant is stuck between a rock and a hard place. They either tell the truth and goof you up, lie and risk jail, or refuse to answer and go to jail.  The answer is simple – you’ll get goofed over every time.

B. An attorney can actually provide legal advice – lawfully. You’re going to need a lot of answers regarding the laws. Almost all the states I know of require that people who provide legal advice be licensed attorneys in that state. Only attorneys can provide legal advice. If anyone claims they are an attorney, check the state bar directory in which they live to see if they are a current member in good standing. For example, if you go to the Florida Bar’s member search page, you can search for me and see that I’m eligible to practice law and in good standing with the Florida Bar.

I know of a person running around in the industry right now that calls themselves an attorney but that person is actually a disbarred attorney who was disbarred because of dishonest conduct towards the client. It will look pretty bad to your boss if you hire a so-called attorney who turns out to not be a LICENSED attorney.

C. They have a duty to you. – This is an important one. Yes, we all understand the idea of giving secrets away to a competitor is a big no-no. But consider this….as a Florida Bar attorney, I’m actually prohibited from paying out to any non-attorney or drone manufacturers any referral fees. This means that if I recommend something or someone, I’m recommending it because it is good, not because I’m getting paid for it. Furthermore, this means that people who refer to me are sending you to me because I’m the best person to help, NOT that I’m giving them a kickback.  If you were sent to a consultant, ask the consultant if they provided kickbacks (referral fees) to anyone to have them send you to the consultant.

D. Protection. Most attorneys have legal malpractice insurance which is there to protect you in case there is a mistake.  I don’t know of any consultants that have legal malpractice insurance to protect you if they advise you incorrectly on the aviation regulations or the other laws that apply to this area. Furthermore, attorneys go through background checks to get barred. Consultants don’t have to get checked out.

2. Are You Planning on Flying 55 Pounds or Heavier in the United States? 

A. Limited Payload. To fly under Part 107, your drone sprayer needs to weigh under 55 pounds on take-off. It could have the capability to fly heavier, but you need to keep it under. This is an important point because you could purchase a drone sprayer capable of flying over 55 pounds but you’ll be forced to limit the amount of liquid in your tanks for the drone and liquid together to be under 55 pounds at take-off.

B. More Costs & Different Rules. The amount of effort to fly a drone sprayer weighing 55 pounds or heavier is much more considerable than just flying under Part 107 without an exemption. Keep in mind you cannot just get a remote pilot certificate and fly a 55+ drone sprayer. The pilot will need the more costly sport pilot certificate and will be operating under a completely different set of regulations than Part 107. This means your up front costs WILL be higher for flying a 55+ drone than for an under 55 drone.  This also means that if you want to scale out the drone spraying operation, you’ll need to pay for training to get the employee a sport pilot certificate or recruit people that already have this license or higher.  It might make sense for your operation to have multiple under 55 pound drone sprayers and maybe one or more 55+ drone sprayers for larger jobs.

C. Lack of Reliability Data. This is actually the worst one.  For a 55+ exemption, the FAA will ask for information on the drone sprayer, such as how many total hours have been flown on it to show engineering reliability.  This is different than manuals. Is there any supporting data that shows this type of air frame is safe? This means you’ll most likely have to obtain the drone sprayer data yourself or find someone who already has. Maybe in the future the FAA will approve other 55+ exemptions based upon someone doing the previous leg work on the same make and model of drone sprayer but I have yet to see that.

D. Registration Planning. The easy online method of registering the drone sprayer under Part 48 is for only drone sprayers that will be operated under 55 pounds. This means you’ll have to go through the headache of de-registering under Part 48 and re-registering under Part 47 which is a pain in and of itself. Proper planning would say if you plan on going 55+ with your drone sprayer, just register under Part 47 which is good for both under 55  and 55+ operations.

Drone Sprayer Frequently Asked Questions

What are the major benefits of drone sprayers?

People do not have to be around the sprayer which is a big benefit compared to backpack sprayers. You can also get drone sprayers into hard to reach areas like power lines, swamps, protected natural areas, urban congested areas, etc.

What can drones spray?

Pollen, fire retardant, water, herbicide, pesticide, fertilizer, de-icing fluid, etc.

Can drones carry water?

Yes, they can spray water, fire retardant, pesticide, herbicide, and many other liquids. They can also spread granules such as fertilizer and pesticides.

Are there laws for spraying drones?

Yes, there are federal and state laws. Aircraft safety is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which has two different sets of regulations for spray drones depending on the weight of the aircraft. There are also federal and state pesticide application laws that apply to the dispensing of herbicides and pesticides.

What is the best drone sprayer?

Some drones are more cost efficient the larger they are but due to their heavier weight, the extra regulatory burdens for larger drones sometimes completely make the cost efficiency not worth it. Also, some drones are set up in a way that they could not comply with the pesticide labels and would be illegal to use. Its important to do your regulatory homework before purchasing a drone.

Conclusion

Drone sprayers provide great opportunities for certain types of operations but not all situations. To help you achieve your drone sprayer goals quickly and legally, it is best to work with someone who has familiarity with the area.

If you are planning on navigating this difficult area, contact me. I’m a commercial pilot, current FAA certificated flight instructor, aviation attorney, and former professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. I am currently assisting clients in these matters and HAVE successfully obtained exemption approvals for clients to do drone spraying.  I’m also familiar with the non-aviation related legal issues that are extremely important for drone sprayer operations.

My Services

Process:

A petition for exemption needs to be filed. In parallel to this process, you go through the agricultural aircraft operating certification at the local flight standards district office level. I’ll give you instructions on how to do this. Basically, you file an application to them and send them the manuals we filed in support of the petition for exemption. Once the exemption is granted, you schedule with the FAA an in-person inspection where they verify your knowledge and skill of flying the aircraft. If you pass, you then obtain an operating certificate.

In order for the spraying operations to be in compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations (other laws may apply as well), the pilot needs a remote pilot certificate, the drone must be registered, you need the exemption, AND the agricultural aircraft operating certificate has been issued.

Time:

Turn around times on an exemption from the FAA is about 60-90 days from filing to approval, unless there is a government shutdown. Turn around time on the agricultural aircraft operator certificate can be 3-9 months depending on many factors.

Deliverables:

The deliverables are determined by what you select.

 CostExemptionManualsAgricultural Aircraft Operating CertificateAnswering Whatever Drone Law Questions You Have
Level 11,800Filed by me.I file stock manuals I created. No customization.·  Step-by-step guide.

·  Study material.

·  You file the paperwork and resolve any issues encountered with the FAA.

·  You study on your own and find the answers on your own beyond what I don’t answer in the 30 minutes.

30 Minutes
Level 23,000Filed by me.Work with you to customize manuals to your needs. I then file.·  Answering questions regarding FAA created certification problems

·  Emailing or calling FAA inspectors to resolve problems.

·  Step-by-step guide.

·  study material.

120 Minutes (Useful when preparing for your inspection)

From me, I’ll file the exemption. If Level 2 is selected, I’ll assist you in creating the operations and training manual. I’ll need you to decide on the finished training and operations manual.

From you, I need the contract signed AND payment before I start working. During the process, you’ll need to supply me the aircraft manual (what the manufacturer gave you). If Level 2 is selected, I’ll assist you in creating the operations and training manual. I’ll need you to decide on the finished training and operations manual.

My Experience:

I have helped 13 clients obtain an exemption and 6 agricultural aircraft operating certificates. I have had 0 rejections of my 137 exemption petitions.

Drone Sprayer Exemption FAQs:

  • Can I add aircraft later? Yes, the best way to do it is to have one aircraft on the exemption which is the same you plan on flying during the inspection. The exemption will say you just need to have any future aircraft listed on your letter of authorization (it’s some pieces of paper that comes with your operating certificate and is not to be confused with a certificate of authorization for airspace). You get your local FAA aviation safety inspector to list any additional aircraft on the LOA. 1 exemption and 1 operating certificate with a LOA that can list multiple aircraft.
  • How does it work with aircraft over 55 pounds? Basically, 55+ pound aircraft operate under a different set of regulations (which means we need those specifically exempted in the exemption). The easiest way to do things is just have 2 exemptions: 1 for under 55 and 1 for 55+. Why? because the under 55 exemption does not have any buffer zone issues regarding how far you need to stay away from people or airports while the 55+ exemption DOES which can get problematic when you are near people and airports.
  • My aircraft CAN fly over 55 pounds. Does that mean I cannot get an under 55 exemption?  No, you can have an aircraft capable of flying 55+ but you just limit the payload to keep it under 55 to fly under the exemption without any buffer zone or airspace issues. You can have one aircraft and two different exemptions. You would “mow the lawn” with the 55+ exemption and “weed wack” with the under 55 when you are near people, houses, cars, etc.
  • Can I add waivers later on or do I need to get them now? You can add on the night and/or swarm waivers after you obtain the operating certificate and exemption. This is actually better as it presents less headaches during the initial process. I’ve done it before.

If you are planning on flying aircraft 55 pounds or heavier:

The under 55 pound exemption process is somewhat well defined but 55+ exemptions are not.

The costs for 55+ exemption are proportional to the amount of work I have to do. I’m not presently working on any of those but plan to offer this service in the near future. If the manufacturer can supply a lot of the data, the cost is lower.

If you can choose an aircraft that has been previously through the 55+ exemption process, we can maybe leverage the previous leg work done and skip the aircraft analysis because the aircraft is the same as the one previously approved. The only ones I know of are the Precision Vision 30, Yamaha RMAX, HSE M6A Pro, and HSE M8A Pro.

Another problem is when the aircraft is 55+ pounds, it is hard to get the flight data legally since you don’t have the approval to fly. There are two solutions: obtain an experimental certificate and test fly it to obtain the hours or fly the aircraft inside.

If the aircraft has not been previously approved, here is a list of what needs to go into a 55+ exemption (you’ll notice you can start logging some of the hours under 55 lb. flying):

  • A detailed description of the aircraft design and configuration for the UAS, focusing on the UAS features and flight characteristics to include, but not limited to:

o Three-view drawings of aircraft and support equipment to include wingspan, height, length and/or other geometric dimensions

o Description of the aircraft and support and equipment (ground station) limitations

 Maximum take-off weight

 Empty weight

 Airspeed • Cruise • Maximum • Stall (if applicable)

 Maximum endurance of the aircraft

o Description of major subsystems

 Autopilot

 Command and control (please include spectrum frequencies utilized)

      • Lost link strategies (i.e. communication, control, and data)
      • FCC Permit information (if applicable)

 Propulsion system type

      • Fuel
      • Electrical

 Payload

    • A detailed description of flight, lab, and software testing for the UAS, and, if applicable, the various flight conditions including:

o Airspeeds

o Density altitudes

o Temperatures

o Wind/gust conditions

    • A detailed description of operational history, proposed operations, and proposed operational areas for the UAS, focusing on the intended mission and nature of the operating area to include, but not limited to:

o Total flight hours with the aircraft

o Flight hours by type of mission and operating area

 Class of Airspace

 Daytime or nighttime operations

 Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC)

 Operations over private property or restricted areas

 Operations in rural or urban areas

 Proximity to people (not participating in the mission)

o Detailed incident/mishap data

 Root cause analysis

 Lessons learned

 Design and/or operational changes implemented

      • A detailed description of pilot-in-command (PIC), visual observer (VO, if applicable), and other crew member roles and responsibilities as well as qualifications focusing on training and experience to include, but not limited to:

o Pilot certification

o Medical certification

o Amount of training and experience

o Proficiency

  • A detailed description of maintenance and operational procedures for the UAS, focusing on maintaining the UAS for safe flight over its operating life to include, but not limited to:

o Operational manuals

o Emergency procedures

o Maintenance manuals

o Pre-flight checklist

o Post-flight checklist

o Quick reference aircraft emergency procedures checklist (for use by the PIC and VO during flight)

  • A detailed description of a risk assessment for the UAS, focusing on potential hazards to include, but not limited to:

o Initial risk level

o Residual risk level

Comparison Table of My Services to HSE’s

Here is an apples-to-apples comparison of Rupprecht Law to HSE’s assistance services.

 Rupprecht LawHSE
Legal AdviceI’m an attorney that is licensed to provide legal advice. Can provide legal advice regarding FAA, liability, the law, etc.Cannot provide. It’s illegal for them to do. They might try to outsource to UASolutions Group. If you examine more closely, the bio for Kelly at UASolutions Group says, “was an Attorney at Law” which means they cannot currently provide YOU legal advice.
Aviation ExperienceFAA Certificated Flight Instructor and Commercial Pilot for 10+ years.?
Fiduciary Duty to You?Yes. The Florida Bar Rules of Professional Conduct regulate my actions towards you.No
Exemption FilingYesYes
ManualsProvides manual templates and works with you to develop manuals to your company.Provides manuals.
Assisting with Agricultural Aircraft Operating CertificateYes.? I don’t know how much they assist with.
Costs1,800 or 3000 (depending on which package).2350 ?
InsuredYes?
Background ChecksYes, from TSA and Florida Bar.?
What happens if they are unethical?You can report me to the Florida Bar and they can investigate me. I could lose my bar license if I violate a rule of professional conduct.  I have “skin in the game.”?
Google Review Ratings as of 12/24/201937 Reviews (5.0 Stars) and no I did not pay for those reviews or hire some company with fake accounts to pump up those numbers.2 Reviews (5 Stars)

 

Drone Visual Line of Sight Calculator

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Section 107.31 Visual line of sight aircraft operation. (2020)

Section 107.31 limits how far an aircraft can fly from the remote pilot in command. The distance is NOT set in stone. The distance changes depending on multiple factors. To understand what affects the distances, we need to understand the regulation.

Section 107.31 says:

(a) With vision that is unaided by any device other than corrective lenses, the remote pilot in command, the visual observer (if one is used), and the person manipulating the flight control of the small unmanned aircraft system must be able to see the unmanned aircraft throughout the entire flight in order to:

(1) Know the unmanned aircraft’s location;

(2) Determine the unmanned aircraft’s attitude, altitude, and direction of flight;

(3) Observe the airspace for other air traffic or hazards; and

(4) Determine that the unmanned aircraft does not endanger the life or property of another.

(b) Throughout the entire flight of the small unmanned aircraft, the ability described in paragraph (a) of this section must be exercised by either:

(1) The remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small unmanned aircraft system; or

(2) A visual observer.

The distance is determined by how well the remote pilot can do the things listed in (a)(1)-(4). Obviously a young person flying a large drone during the day will see a drone farther away than an older person flying a small drone during the evening. Because everyone is unique, this means the distance for 107.31 is unique to each person as well.

The regulations do allow for first person viewing (FPV) racing under Part 107 provided you have a visual observer operating according to Section 107.33. The aircraft must still be flown WITHIN line of sight and the remote pilot must be able to exercise the capability in 107.31(a) at any time. They should be able to pull off the goggles and find the drone quickly.

We can calculate the maximum distance that a person can comply with (1) and (3) but (2) and (4) are very dependent upon the aircraft and maybe lighting.

Visual Line of Sight Calculator

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FAA’s Discussion on Section 107.31 Visual line of sight aircraft operation from the Final Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule

Currently, 14 CFR 91.113(b) imposes a generally applicable requirement that, during flight, “vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and avoid other aircraft.” This see-and-avoid requirement is at the heart of the FAA’s regulatory structure, mitigating the risk of aircraft colliding in midair. This requirement is currently satisfied in manned-aircraft operations by a pilot on board the manned aircraft looking out from inside the aircraft to see whether other aircraft are on a collision course with the pilot’s aircraft. However, the person controlling the small UAS cannot see other aircraft in the same manner because he or she is not inside the aircraft. That is why Public Law 112-95, section 333(b)(1) requires the FAA to consider, as a critical factor in this rulemaking, whether a small UAS operation is conducted “within visual line of sight.”

To address this issue, the NPRM proposed that the operator of the small UAS must always be capable of maintaining visual line of sight of the small unmanned aircraft unaided by any technology other than glasses or contact lenses. The NPRM also proposed creating a new position of visual observer to assist the operator in maintaining visual line of sight. Under that proposal, if a visual observer is used in the operation, then the visual observer could watch the small unmanned aircraft instead of the operator. However, if a visual observer was not used in the operation, then the operator would have to exercise his or her visual-line-of-sight capability to watch the small unmanned aircraft.

As proposed in the NPRM, the operator or visual observer would have to be able to see the small unmanned aircraft throughout the entire flight in order to: (1) know the unmanned aircraft’s location; (2) determine the unmanned aircraft’s attitude, altitude, and direction; (3) observe the airspace for other air traffic or hazards; and (4) determine that the unmanned aircraft does not endanger the life or property of another. The NPRM also proposed that even if a visual observer is used, at all times during flight, the small unmanned aircraft must remain close enough to the operator for the operator to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses. For the reasons discussed below, this rule will make three changes to the NPRM visual-line-of-sight framework but will otherwise finalize it as proposed. First, because of the change in the small UAS crewmember framework (discussed in the previous section of this preamble), this rule will replace the operator with the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS and the remote pilot in command, who in many instances will be the same person. Second, this rule will make clarifying amendments to the regulatory text. Third, this rule will make the visual-line-of-sight requirement waivable.

A number of commenters expressed concern about whether the visual-line-of-sight framework proposed in the NPRM would sufficiently mitigate risk. Foxtrot Consulting, the Air Medical Operators Association, the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association, and several individuals asserted that the unaided human eye is not adequate to see and avoid other aircraft. Additionally, these commenters argued that the small unmanned aircraft will be too small to be seen by a manned-aircraft pilot, and, with no lighting requirement, the unmanned aircraft may be all but invisible, particularly in minimum visual-flight-rules (VFR) conditions.

Similarly, commenters, including A4A and several individuals, questioned whether small UAS remote pilots would be capable of perceiving potential conflicts and responsibly complying with the principle of “see and avoid.” These commenters asserted that since small UAS are unmanned, they are inherently unable to comply with current “see and avoid” requirements of 14 CFR 91.113(b) in visual flight conditions. The commenters argued that a remote pilot may not have sufficient perceptual accuracy to determine whether or not a small unmanned aircraft is on a collision course with another aircraft. The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society suggested that the FAA conduct a systematic, scientific study of factors that affect an observer’s ability to estimate altitude and airspeed. A joint comment from Skycatch, Clayco, AECOM, and DPR Construction suggested that rather than relying merely on an operator’s eyesight, the FAA should employ a risk-based approach to allowing operations.

The FAA recognizes that one of the issues with small UAS is that a person on the ground cannot see and avoid other aircraft in the same manner as a pilot who is inside a manned aircraft. The FAA also agrees that due to relative size of aircraft, a remote pilot will most likely be able to see and avoid a manned aircraft before the manned-aircraft pilot will see the small UAS. This issue is not unique to small UAS; manned vehicles currently in the NAS range from a few hundred pounds to 1.4 million pounds and pilots have similar challenges regarding see-and-avoid. The FAA has mitigated the risk in this rule through operational parameters that reduce the risk of a midair collision. Because of the limits on their access to airspace that is controlled or at higher altitudes, small unmanned aircraft will avoid busy flight paths and are unlikely to encounter high-speed aircraft that would be difficult for the remote pilot to see-and-avoid. Additionally, as discussed below, this rulewill also specify minimum requirements for weather and visibility to maximize the remote pilot’s ability to see incoming manned aircraft and avoid a collision with those aircraft. The FAA disagrees with the notion that remote pilots operating under the visualline-of-sight framework of this rule will be incapable of perceiving potential conflicts with other aircraft. In many cases, the remote pilot’s perspective from the ground may be better than the perspective of a pilot onboard an aircraft because the remote pilot is not confined to a cockpit with vision obscured by the fuselage or flight control surfaces. The remote pilot is thus able to observe airspace 360° around the unmanned aircraft, including airspace above and below. Thus, the person maintaining visual line of sight will be able to see potential conflicts with manned aircraft. Furthermore, as discussed below, this rule will require the small unmanned aircraft to always yield the right of way to other users of the NAS.

Several commenters, including the News Media Coalition, NAMIC, and Drone Labs, LLC objected to the proposed limitation that visual line of sight must be maintained unaided by any technology other than corrective lenses. These commenters suggested that the rule allow the use of first-person-view (FPV) technology, arguing that available technologies have advanced to the point that operators can use FPV to meet or exceed the visual-line-of-sight requirements proposed in the NPRM. United Parcel Service (UPS) asserted that FPV technology has been safely and effectively used in the UAS hobbyist community for many years.

The Drone User Group Network stated that FPV operations should be permitted with mandatory use of a spotter. Predesa said that a wearable heads-up display that combines the FPV from the small UAS and a wider-angle view from a ground camera located near the operator may provide the same risk mitigation as that afforded by the visual observer. The University of Washington and a joint submission by the State of Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development, the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems, and the Nevada FAA-designated UAS Test Site said that current FPV technologies offer a wider field of vision than the human eye. DJI stated that existing technology already provides superior orienting abilities over visual observers. One individual referenced a 2004 test conducted by NASA that indicated that FPV cameras mounted on pan-tilt gimbals can be used to scan virtually the entire airspace. This commenter also acknowledged FPV limitations “…such as the field-of-view of the camera (too wide provides less detail, too narrow limits situational awareness), total field-ofregard, clarity, and range of the transmitted video.”

Some commenters, including the University of California, the National Roofing Contractors Association, and, AIA, stated that use of a FPV device should be allowed to meet the visual-line-of-sight requirements of this rule under certain circumstances, such as when other navigation and control technologies are available in the vehicle (e.g., autonomous flight, onboard geo-fencing, sense-and-avoid technology) and mitigating measures are required (e.g. altitude, weight, location, and speed limitations, location or the use of visual observers). Exelon and Skyview Strategies said that FAA should include specific criteria or standards under which the technology would be allowed to be used, either alone or in conjunction with other technologies and procedures.

Other commenters supported the NPRM’s proposed limitation on the use of technology to maintain visual line of sight. Commenters, including NAAA, ALPA, SkySpecs, and the U.S. Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association, pointed out that FPV technology remains unproven and unreliable and the FPV field of view is limited. ALPA specifically stated that “[t]he use of an on-board camera cannot replace the awareness provided by direct observation by the operator/pilot or designated visual observer.” FPV technology works by transmitting video feed from a camera carried by the small unmanned aircraft to the control station. The problem with relying on FPV technology for the ability to see and avoid other aircraft in the NAS is that an FPV camera’s field-of-view is currently either very limited (narrow-field-of-view lens ≤ 30 degrees horizontal and 10 degrees vertical) or distorted (usually fish-eyed if using a widefield-of-view lens). A narrow field-of-view lens poses a safety issue because it restricts the user’s peripheral vision, which is used to detect incoming aircraft or other objects that may pose a safety hazard. A wide-field-of-view lens poses a safety issue because it reduces the angular resolution available to the user, making it necessary for an object in the monitor to be closer to the camera before it covers enough pixels for the remote pilot to be able to detect it. In addition, FPV relies on a video transmitter to broadcast the image to the remote pilot. These transmitter/receiver units are commonly available in several frequency bands from 900 MHz to 5.8 GHz, each frequency band having distinct advantages and disadvantages as to range, susceptibility to interference, and ability to penetrate foliage. As of this writing, the FAA does not have validated data to indicate whether FPV can be used to safely conduct operations beyond visual line of sight and if so, what FPV performance specifications are required to support those operations. The FAA acknowledges that FPV cameras have been used by hobbyists for many years and that the technology is advancing rapidly within the growing industry. However, as discussed previously, FPV cameras have technical limitations and the FAA does not possess the data necessary to support a regulatory standard at this time.

The FAA also acknowledges the comments concerning technological or operational mitigations that could be used in conjunction with FPV. However, those mitigations have significant potential shortcomings that need to be explored prior to allowing them to be used in the NAS. For example, one of the commenters suggested the use of pan-tilt camera systems to mitigate for the shortcomings in FPV technology. While a pan-tilt system can allow a narrow-angle camera to scan a wider field of view, the system is still significantly inferior to the peripheral vision of the human eye, which can discern movement across the entire field of view, approaching 180 degrees in normal vision. Another commenter suggested the use of a wearable heads-up display. However, while a wearable heads-up display could possibly address some concerns about low-quality resolution present in wideangle cameras, sharing the screen area with a second ground-based camera feed could further compound the resolution issue. Additionally, the ability for a camera to provide a wider field of view also generally carries with it the significant downside of needing increased radio bandwidth for the higher resolution video. This could make the video feed more susceptible to increased noise interference or it could reduce the angular resolution, affecting target discernibility.

While data on FPV technology and potential associated mitigations is currently limited, the FAA recognizes the potential for this technology to provide a means of operating a small UAS beyond visual line of sight. For this reason, the FAA is currently conducting a pathfinder initiative with BNSF Railroad to gather safety data on operating beyond the visual line of sight of the remote pilot in rural/isolated areas. The FAA is also conducting a second pathfinder initiative with PrecisionHawk to gather data on UAS flights in rural areas outside the remote pilot’s direct vision. The FAA anticipates that data from these initiatives could help inform its approach to extend visual line of sight operations in future agency actions.

Further, to reflect the changing state of UAS technology and the limited data available at this time, the FAA has made the visual-line-of-sight requirements of this rule waivable. An applicant will be able to obtain a waiver for an operation conducted differently than what is required by the visual-line-of-sight requirements of part 107 if the applicant demonstrates that his or her operation can safely be conducted under the terms of a certificate of waiver. The FAA also emphasizes that this rule does not prohibit the use of FPV devices as long as the device is not used to meet the visual-line-of-sight requirements of part 107.

Several commenters argued that small UAS operations should be permitted to go beyond visual line of sight when certain other technologies are used. Predesa argued that visual pattern recognition technology to detect terrain and aircraft hazards could be used to mitigate the risk associated with beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations. The Oregon Department of Aviation, the Agricultural Technology Alliance, and the New Hampshire Department of Transportation Bureau of Aeronautics (New Hampshire Department of Transportation), among others, asserted that utilizing geo-fencing to constrain unmanned aircraft flight should safely permit beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations. In addition to these, other technologies suggested by the commenters included light detection and ranging (LIDAR), Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B), and automated navigation. The National Ski Areas Association noted that “collision detection and avoidance systems are in development,” and said that the final rule needs to “recognize and accommodate” these and other technological innovations. Many of the technologies suggested by the commenters only partially mitigate possible hazards. For instance, automated navigation and geo-fencing could protect against terrain and ground obstructions but would not reveal manned aircraft transiting the flight area. Conversely, TCAS could reveal transponder-equipped aircraft but would be ignorant of terrain or non-transponder-equipped aircraft. Some of the mentioned technologies, such as LIDAR and visual pattern recognition, have potential to detect both ground and airborne obstacles, but no commenters provided data to support a particular standard or a testing means to validate the ability and reliability of that technology. As of this writing, the FAA does not have sufficient data to find that a technology can safely satisfy the see-and-avoid requirement of part 107. Consequently, the FAA will consider these situations on a caseby-case basis through the waiver process. The FAA will also use the waiver process as one means by which to evaluate new technologies as they become more developed. Commenters, including Boeing Commercial Airplanes (Boeing), News Media Coalition, the Newspaper Association of America, NAMIC, Amazon, and Google, argued that a visual-line-of-sight requirement is unnecessary over certain areas such as those that are unpopulated, private property, controlled-access facilities, or where activities would be unduly restricted by a visual-line-of-sight requirement, and that operational safeguards could be employed to ensure safe beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations. The types of unduly restricted activities could include newsgathering events where people must remain at a distance from the event, agriculture operations, underwriting or adjusting claims in dangerous locations, responses to natural disasters, firefighting, search and rescue, and law enforcement operations. The types of operational safeguards proposed could include operating under FAA-imposed restrictions on weight, range, location, and altitude; and operating along pre-programmed and pre-approved paths through the use of mapping, navigation, and contingency management software.

The FAA recognizes that the location of a small UAS flight could affect the inherent risk of the operation. However, as discussed previously, there is currently limited data concerning operations conducted beyond visual line of sight. The FAA is working to acquire additional safety data as part of its pathfinder initiatives, but that data will not be available within the timeframe envisioned by this rule. Because there are a significant number of variables involved in each individual operating environment and because the FAA has limited data on beyond-line-of-sight operations, this rule will not include a standard of general applicability for these types of operations. Instead, the FAA will consider each individual operating environment (as well as any mitigations) on a case-by-case basis as part of its consideration of a waiver application.

Several commenters, including the American Farm Bureau and the American Petroleum Institute, suggested that beyond-line-of-sight operations should be permitted over privately owned land where the operator would be able to close access to nonparticipants. These commenters provided examples of pipelines and utility lines.

The FAA recognizes that controlling the ground in the vicinity of the flight could mitigate hazards to persons and property on the ground. However, the primary concern underlying the visual-line-of-sight restriction in this rule is risk to other aircraft in the air. Because a property owner is generally limited in how much he or she can restrict other aircraft from operating near the property, the fact that a property is privately owned is not, by itself, sufficient to allow beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations. As discussed earlier, individuals wishing to operate beyond visual line of sight will be able to apply for a waiver, and the FAA will examine individual operating environments on a case-by-case basis as part of its evaluation of a waiver application.

AIA and JAM Aviation suggested that the first sentence of § 107.31 should be amended to read: “With vision that is unaided by any device other than corrective lenses, the operator and visual observer must be able to see the unmanned aircraft throughout the entire flight.” One individual stated § 107.31(b) should be amended to read: “Determine the unmanned aircraft’s attitude, altitude, and direction of flight.” The commenter said the change is needed because for multi-rotor UAS, the direction of flight could be quite different from the nominal “front” of the aircraft. According to this commenter, the proposed wording could lead to confusion on what “direction” meant, whether it was the UAS’s path or the direction (bearing) from the remote pilot’s position.

As an initial matter, the FAA notes that, as discussed in section III.E.1 of this preamble, the NPRM-proposed position of operator has been replaced by the remote pilot in command. Additionally, the remote pilot in command is not required to be the person who manipulates the flight controls of the small UAS. Accordingly, this rule will require both the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS to possess the ability to maintain visual line of sight of the small unmanned aircraft.

In response to the concerns raised by the commenters, the FAA has also clarified the regulatory text of § 107.31. As amended, § 107.31 states that the remote pilot in command, the visual observer (if one is used), and the person manipulating the flight control of the small UAS must be able to see the unmanned aircraft throughout the entire flight in order to: (1) know the unmanned aircraft’s location; (2) determine the unmanned aircraft’s attitude, altitude, and direction of flight; (3) observe the airspace for other air traffic or hazards; and (4) determine that the unmanned aircraft does not endanger the life or property of another. This visual-line-of-sight ability must be exercised throughout the entire flight of the small unmanned aircraft by either: (1) the visual observer; or (2) the remote pilot in command and person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS (if that person is not the remote pilot in command).

Several commenters, including Modovolate, Small UAV Coalition, and Southern Company, asked the FAA to make clear that brief interruptions to visual line of sight should be permitted. One commenter asked that a quantitative limit on what qualifies as a momentary interruption should be established. Another individual asked the FAA to make clear that the remote pilot’s primary mission is to scan the area for other aircraft and not to keep “eyes on” the small unmanned aircraft.

The FAA understands and accepts that the person maintaining visual line of sight may lose sight of the unmanned aircraft for brief moments of the operation. This may be necessary either because the small unmanned aircraft momentarily travels behind an obstruction or to allow the person maintaining visual line of sight to perform actions such as scanning the airspace or briefly looking down at the small UAS control station. For example, a remote pilot in command stationed on the ground utilizing a small unmanned aircraft to inspect a rooftop may lose sight of the aircraft for brief periods while inspecting the farthest point of the roof. As another example, a remote pilot in command conducting a search operation around a fire scene with a small unmanned aircraft may briefly lose sight of the aircraft while it is temporarily behind a dense column of smoke.

However, the FAA emphasizes that even though the remote pilot in command may briefly lose sight of the small unmanned aircraft, he or she always has the see-and-avoid responsibilities set out in §§ 107.31 and 107.37. The circumstances of what would prevent a remote pilot from fulfilling those responsibilities will vary depending on factors such as the type of UAS, the operational environment, and distance between the remote pilot and the unmanned aircraft. For this reason, the FAA declines to specify a quantitative value to an interruption of visual contact as it would have the effect of potentially allowing a hazardous interruption or prohibiting a reasonable one.

With regard to the comment concerning keeping “eyes on” the small unmanned aircraft, the FAA notes that the principles of scanning, long taught to manned aircraft pilots, include the dangers of “tunnel vision” and that an effective scan must encompass all areas of the environment a hazard could come from. The FAA agrees that to comply with § 107.31, the person maintaining visual line of sight must effectively scan the area and not necessarily be focused on constant visual contact with the small unmanned aircraft. Several commenters suggested that the FAA impose a numerical limit on how far away a small unmanned aircraft may travel from the person maintaining visual line of sight. ALPA, NBAA, NAAA, and the State of Nevada, Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems and Nevada FAA-designated UAS Test Site, commenting jointly, argued that an appropriate specific numerical distance should be imposed and be based on study or test data. Predesa stated that a numerical limit can be determined by the performance of the UAS, taking into account a margin that allows for winds and wind gusts, and power characteristics of the UAS battery. FLIR Systems, Inc., Aviation Management, the City and County of Denver, Colorado, and two individuals proposed specific numerical limits the FAA should impose on the area of operation. The numerical recommendations of these commenters varied widely from 1000 feet to 3 miles. An individual commenter suggested that some form of reliable and verifiable documenting of distance should be required.

The FAA declines to impose a numerical limit on how far away a small unmanned aircraft can travel from the person maintaining visual line of sight. A prescriptive numerical limit would not take into account situational-dependent operating factors and may preclude operations that could otherwise be conducted safely. Additionally, no commenter provided data to substantiate the belief that a numerical standard would provide a higher level of safety than the visual-line-of-sight standard proposed in the NPRM. This rule will also not include a documentation requirement regarding the distance of a small unmanned aircraft. A distance documentation requirement would impose an unjustified cost on the public because the permissible distance of the small unmanned aircraft from the remote pilot in command will be situation-specific. For example, a remote pilot in command operating in excellent visibility conditions will be able to fly the small unmanned aircraft farther away from him or herself and still maintain visual line of sight. Conversely, a remote pilot in command operating in poorer visibility conditions will have a more limited area where he or she can fly the small unmanned aircraft and still maintain the required visual line of sight.

PlaneSense, Inc. and Cobalt Air, LLC, in a joint submission, stated that the rule should also require that the operator or a visual observer have line of sight to the ground over which the small unmanned aircraft is flying. However, requiring a remote pilot or visual observer to have line of sight to the ground will not enhance the safety of this rule, and may prohibit certain operations that could otherwise be conducted safely under part 107. For instance, a small UAS operation over a disaster area containing no persons or property on the ground would not need to have line of sight to the ground to ensure the safe operation of the small UAS.

Airports Council International – North America suggested that the first sentence of § 107.31 should be amended to read: “With vision that is unaided by any device other than corrective lenses, the operator or visual observer must be able to see the unmanned aircraft and other aircraft to which the unmanned aircraft could pose a collision risk throughout the entire flight in order to….”

The FAA declines this suggestion because the requirement to be aware of other aircraft is already encompassed by the pertinent regulatory text of part 107. Specifically, § 107.31(a)(3) will require the remote pilot in command, the visual observer (if one is used), and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS (if that person is not the remote pilot in command) to be able to see the unmanned aircraft throughout the entire flight in order to observe the airspace for other air traffic or hazards. Other aircraft are considered air traffic and are thus covered by the regulatory text of § 107.31(a)(3).

The Washington State Department of Transportation, Aviation Division concurred “with the line-of-sight and reduced visibility parameters as described, with the exception that certain verified research and development operations … be allowed on a case-by-case basis, and for unique situations such as aerial observation to support firefighting where redundant systems may alleviate line-of-sight and visibility limitations.”

As an initial matter, the FAA notes that operations, such as those in support of firefighting, will not be subject to the provisions of part 107 if conducted as public aircraft operations. With regard to case-by-case determinations, the visual-line-of-sight restrictions of this rule will be subject to waiver. This means that a person will be able to apply for and obtain a certificate of waiver from the provisions of § 107.31 if the person establishes that the proposed operation can safely be conducted under the terms of a certificate of waiver. The FAA will evaluate waiver requests on a case-by-case basis.

Commenters including several state farm bureau federations and FLIR Systems argued that a visual-line-of-sight requirement could potentially negate the cost and time savings associated with small UAS operations conducted over large swaths of land because the requirement would necessitate multiple flights to complete the operations. According tothese commenters, the potential safety risks associated with operations would also increase because more frequent takeoffs and landings would be required.

The commenters did not provide any data showing that there is increased risk or costs associated with the takeoff or landing of a small unmanned aircraft. As such, the FAA declines to change this rule on the basis suggested by the commenters. However, as discussed in sections III.E.1 and III.E.3.a.i of this preamble, this rule has been changed from the NPRM to allow: (1) the flight of a small unmanned aircraft over a sparsely populated area from a moving vehicle; and (2) a remote pilot in command to extend the area of operation by handing off control mid-flight to another remote pilot in command. Both of these changes, as well as the ability to apply for a waiver, will allow for additional operational flexibility under this rule.

A large number of commenters, including the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and the Associated General Contractors of America, argued that visual line of sight should not apply to certain specific operations. Those operations included:
• Public safety/emergency.
• Conservation-focused operations.
• Operations by electric utilities for line inspection or for storm-damage restoration.
• Oil industry inspections.
• Property inspections.
• Agriculture.
• Newsgathering.
• Operations within a structure.

As an initial matter, the FAA does not regulate UAS operations conducted inside an enclosed structure. Similarly, as discussed earlier in this preamble, part 107 will not apply to public aircraft operations unless they voluntarily choose to operate as civil aircraft. Most public safety operations are conducted as public aircraft operations and will continue to be authorized by COA. Therefore, these types of operations, when conducted in accordance with a COA, will be unaffected by the requirements of part 107.

With regard to the other operations suggested by the commenters, there is currently no data indicating that the nature of the small UAS operation mitigates the risk associated with operations conducted beyond visual line of sight. The FAA recognizes that there are a variety of uses for UAS that this rulemaking will not enable. However, there are also a number of small UAS uses that will be enabled by this rule. If the FAA were to delay issuance of this rule until it had sufficient data to generally allow beyond-visual-line-ofsight operations, the societal benefits that could be realized by immediately allowing operations within visual line of sight would be delayed as well. Thus, the FAA will utilize the incremental approach discussed earlier in this preamble, under which the FAA will issue a rule for the lowest risk UAS activities while pursuing future rulemaking to expand their use. Additionally, as discussed previously, the waiver authority in this rule will enable the FAA to examine, on a case-by-case basis, any mitigation provided by the operating environment in the specific operations discussed by the commenters.

A number of commenters, including the National Roofing Contractors Association, Vail Resorts, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, and MAPPS, suggested that small UAS operators should be permitted to extend their visual line of sight through the use of one or more visual observers who maintain visual line of sight while in constant communication with the operator. Continental Mapping Consultants, Inc. (Continental Mapping) similarly advocated for the use of one “or many” remote visual observers “daisy chained” throughout the operational area, while in constant contact with each other and the operator. The National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and Radio Television Digital News Association also asked the FAA to reconsider its proposed prohibition on a relay or “daisy chain” of visual observers. Specifically, the commenters said that the FAA should revise § 107.33(b) to require that either the operator or a visual observer be able to see the small UAS at all points during the flight.

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association asserted that “adequate operational and public safety can be ensured” if operator visual line of sight is augmented by an additional visual observer who maintains visual line of sight while in communication with the operator. The association did not advocate for an “extensive or unlimited number” of observers to extend the range of UAS operations, but said a reasonable balance can be reached to allow more practical uses of UAS (such as operations on cattle ranches).Allowing remote pilots to extend their visual line of sight through the use of one or more visual observers may introduce new hazards into the operation. As discussed in the next section of this preamble, the visual observer’s role in the operation is limited to simply
maintaining visual line of sight and communicating what he or she sees to the remote pilot.Allowing “daisy chaining” of visual observers to fly the unmanned aircraft beyond line of
sight of the remote pilot in command would result in a delay in the remote pilot’s reaction time because the visual observer would have to verbalize any hazard and the remote pilot would be unable to look up and directly see the situation. Instead, the remote pilot would have to respond to the hazard by formulating and executing a maneuver based on his or her understanding of the information received from the visual observer rather than a direct visual perception of the hazard.

Because a delay in reaction time may introduce new hazards into the operation, this rule will retain the requirement that the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS (if that person is not the remote pilot in command) must be able to see the small unmanned aircraft throughout the entire flight. However, as discussed earlier, the visual-line-of-sight requirements of this rule will be waivable. Additionally, the FAA notes that it is currently engaged in research and testing on how a communication error could affect the ability of the remote pilot to correctly apply avoidance maneuvers, and this data will help inform future agency actions.

Textron Systems, the National Association of Realtors, Trimble Navigation, and ArgenTech Solutions recommended that this rule provide an operator with the ability to hand off control and responsibility for flight during the course of an operation. Textron Systems recommended that the rule “allow passing of ‘operator in command’ during flight operations as long as the system and the operational construct meet other requirements of the rule.” Trimble proposed that the FAA should explicitly permit multiple operators using networked radios and control stations to operate a single UAS. Under Trimble’s proposal, operators would transition control of the UAS from one operator to another while ensuring see-and-avoid concerns are met. Trimble also asserted that the technology needed to network radios and control stations is utilized in other countries for small UAS operations and has been found to be effective. The National Association of Realtors added that “daisy chaining” operators does not pose a safety concern because “[t]he real-time corrections necessary to perfect an UAS flight could be made instantaneously, rather than the observer communicating with the operator and there being a lag in the time the correction is orally given and then made within the operation.” NetMoby, on the other hand, recommended prohibiting hand-off ability because it could create an “endless daisy chain of operators.”

The FAA agrees with the commenters who stated that transfer of control of a small UAS should be allowed between certificated remote pilots. This can be accomplished while maintaining visual line of sight of the UAS and without loss of control. Multiple certificated remote pilots handing off operational control does not raise the same safety concerns as a daisy chain of visual observers because, unlike a visual observer, the remote pilot in command will have the ability to directly control the small unmanned aircraft. Thus, two or more certificated pilots transferring operational control (i.e. the remote pilot in command designation) to each other does not raise the delayed-reaction-time issue that arises with visual observers having to communicate what they see to another person who actually manipulates the small UAS flight controls.

Accordingly, as discussed in section III.E.1 of this preamble, multiple certificated remote pilots may choose to transfer control and responsibility while operating a small UAS. For example, one remote pilot may be designated the remote pilot in command at the beginning of the operation, and then at some point in the operation another remote pilot may take over as remote pilot in command by orally stating that he or she is doing so. The FAA emphasizes that as the person responsible for the safe operation of the UAS, any remote pilot who will assume remote-pilot-in-command duties should be aware of factors that could affect the flight.

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Cloud Base Altitude Calculator (For Unmanned & Manned Pilots)

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Section 107.51 Operating limitations for small unmanned aircraft.

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Section 107.51 is this section that looks like the FAA just gathered what was left and threw it all into. It deals with speed, altitude, visibility, and cloud distances. For many, this regulation is not a problem but it does get problematic when you need to obtain a waiver from this section. If you check the waiver directory that FAA has published, you’ll notice that there are not a lot of 107.51 waivers that have been issued.

Section 107.51 Operating limitations for small unmanned aircraft.

Here is the actual text of the regulation:

A remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small unmanned aircraft system must comply with all of the following operating limitations when operating a small unmanned aircraft system:

(a) The ground speed of the small unmanned aircraft may not exceed 87 knots (100 miles per hour).

(b) The altitude of the small unmanned aircraft cannot be higher than 400 feet above ground level, unless the small unmanned aircraft:

(1) Is flown within a 400-foot radius of a structure; and

(2) Does not fly higher than 400 feet above the structure’s immediate uppermost limit.

(c) The minimum flight visibility, as observed from the location of the control station must be no less than 3 statute miles. For purposes of this section, flight visibility means the average slant distance from the control station at which prominent unlighted objects may be seen and identified by day and prominent lighted objects may be seen and identified by night.

(d) The minimum distance of the small unmanned aircraft from clouds must be no less than:

(1) 500 feet below the cloud; and

(2) 2,000 feet horizontally from the cloud.

Rarely will anyone get over 100 MPH so that is not really an issue. The 400ft within a structure also seems to be rarely an issue. What causes the most problems is the 3 statute miles of visiblity and the cloud clearance requirements.

Why?

Fog, smoke, and smog.

Fog is basically just very low clouds which also have a tendency of making things very hard to see.  Smoke and smog can also drop the visibility done below 3 statute miles.

If you have low altitude clouds, the 500 foot restriction below the bases of the clouds can be an issue.  Here is a calculator I created to help you figure out the cloud bases.

Cloud Base Calculator

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FAA’s Advisory Circular 107-2 on Section 107.51 Operating limitations for small unmanned aircraft.

Operating Limitations for Small UA. The small UA must be operated in accordance with the following limitations:

• Cannot be flown faster than a groundspeed of 87 knots (100 miles per hour);
• Cannot be flown higher than 400 feet above ground level (AGL), unless flown within a 400-foot radius of a structure and does not fly higher than 400 feet above the structure’s immediate uppermost limit;
• Minimum visibility, as observed from the location of the CS, may not be less than 3 statute miles (sm); and
• Minimum distance from clouds being no less than 500 feet below a cloud and no less than 2000 feet horizontally from the cloud.

Note: These operating limitations are intended, among other things, to support the remote pilot’s ability to identify hazardous conditions relating to encroaching aircraft or persons on the ground, and to take the appropriate actions to maintain safety.

5.10.1 Determining Groundspeed. There are many different types of sUAS and different ways to determine groundspeed. Therefore, this guidance will only touch on some of the possible ways for the remote PIC to ensure that the small UA does not exceed a groundspeed of 87 knots during flight operations. Some of the possible ways to ensure that 87 knots is not exceeded are as follows:

• Installing a Global Positioning System (GPS) device on the small UA that reports groundspeed information to the remote pilot, wherein the remote pilot takes into account the wind direction and speed and calculates the small UA airspeed for a given direction of flight, or
• Timing the groundspeed of the small UA when it is flown between two or more fixed points, taking into account wind speed and direction between each point, then noting the power settings of the small UA to operate at or less than 87 knots groundspeed, or
• Using the small UA’s manufacturer design limitations (e.g., installed groundspeed limiters).

5.10.2 Determining Altitude. In order to comply with the maximum altitude requirements of part 107, as with determining groundspeed, there are multiple ways to determine a small UA’s altitude above the ground or structure. Some possible ways for a remote pilot to determine altitude are as follows:

• Installing a calibrated altitude reporting device on the small UA that reports the small UA altitude above mean sea level (MSL) to the remote pilot, wherein the remote pilot subtracts the MSL elevation of the CS from the small UA reported MSL altitude to determine the small UA AGL altitude above the terrain or structure;
• Installing a GPS device on the small UA that also has the capability of reporting MSL altitude to the remote pilot;
• With the small UA on the ground, have the remote pilot and VO pace off 400 feet from the small UA to get a visual perspective of the small UA at that distance, wherein the remote pilot and VO maintain that visual perspective or closer while the small UA is in flight; or
• Using the known height of local rising terrain and/or structures as a reference.

5.10.3 Visibility and Distance from Clouds. Once the remote PIC and VO have been able to reliably establish the small UA AGL altitude, it is incumbent on the remote PIC to determine that visibility from the CS is at least 3 sm and that the small UA is kept at least 500 feet below a cloud and at least 2,000 feet horizontally from a cloud. One of the ways to ensure adherence to the minimum visibility and cloud clearance requirements is to obtain local aviation weather reports that include current and forecast weather conditions. If there is more than one local aviation reporting station near the operating area, the remote PIC should choose the closest one that is also the most representative of the terrain surrounding the operating area. If local aviation weather reports are not available, then the remote PIC may not operate the small UA if he or she is not able to determine the required visibility and cloud clearances by other reliable means. It is imperative that the UA not be operated above any cloud, and that there are no obstructions to visibility, such as smoke or a cloud, between the UA and the remote PIC.

FAA’s Discussion on Section 107.51 Operating limitations for small unmanned aircraft from the Final Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule

The NPRM also proposed additional visibility and cloud-clearance requirements to ensure that the person maintaining visual line of sight has sufficient visibility to see and avoid other aircraft. Specifically, the NPRM proposed a minimum flight visibility of at least 3 statute miles from the location of the ground control station. The NPRM also proposed that the small unmanned aircraft must maintain a minimum distance from clouds of no less than: (1) 500 feet below the cloud; and (2) 2,000 feet horizontally away from the cloud. This rule will finalize these minimum-flight-visibility and cloud-clearance requirements as proposed in the NPRM but will make those requirements waivable.

Commenters including NAAA, ALPA, and Commonwealth Edison Company supported the proposed minimum flight visibility and distance-from-clouds requirements. Commonwealth Edison asserted that the proposed visibility requirements, in combination with the other proposed operational requirements, would “safeguard safety while recognizing reasonable commercial interests in such a rapidly evolving technological environment.” NAAA stated that the proposed requirements are consistent with the VFR visibility requirements under 14 CFR 91.155 and 91.115. The Professional Helicopter Pilots Association strongly agreed that “weather minimums be at least basic VFR.” ALPA also agreed that all operations must take place in visual meteorological conditions (VMC) with the identified cloud clearances. ALPA further recommended that it be made clear that the 3-mile visibility requirement for VMC does not mean that the visual-line-of-sight required elsewhere in the proposed regulation can necessarily be maintained at 3 miles.

Modovolate Aviation, NAMIC, the Property Drone Consortium, and a few individuals generally opposed the imposition of minimum flight visibility and distance from-cloud requirements. The commenters asserted that such requirements are unnecessary, given the visual-line-of sight requirement of § 107.31. Modovolate stated that it is unlikely that an operator can keep a small UAS in sight at a distance of 3 miles, so a separate weather-visibility requirement is redundant. Modovolate also stated that a small UAS operator cannot maintain visual contact with his small UAS if it is flown in a cloud, but he would be able to fly his small UAS closer than 500 or 1,000 feet to a well-defined cloud without risk.

The Professional Society of Drone Journalists (PSDJ), and Edison Electric Institute, individually and jointly with NRECA and APPA, recommended the removal of the cloud distance requirements altogether. PSDJ asserted that the proposed cloud distance requirements would render many types of weather coverage and research projects impossible and would also make it impossible for small UAS to replace high-risk manned flights, “such as inspecting tower, bridges, or other structures,” as contemplated by the NPRM. The Travelers Companies, Inc. recommended the removal of the requirement that small UAS maintain a distance of no less than 2,000 feet horizontally from a cloud, claiming it is not relevant or workable for pilots flying small UAS from the ground. Aerial Services added that the safety concerns associated with cloud clearance will be alleviated with automation, the maximum altitude restriction, and the restriction on the use of small UAS in the vicinity of airports.

Several other commenters generally supported the imposition of minimum flight visibility and cloud clearance requirements, but said the proposed minimum requirements should be reduced. Commenters including State Farm, AUVSI, the Unmanned Safety Institute, and DJI, argued that the minimum flight visibility and cloud distance should be reduced to 1 statute mile and changed to “remain clear of clouds.” AUVSI asserted that this reduced requirement will reflect the small size, low speeds, and additional operating limitations of small UAS.

EEI said the proposed regulation is too restrictive, especially in areas prone to low cloud cover. The commenter argued that, as long as the operator maintains visual line of sight with the small UAS, the aircraft should be permitted to navigate up to 500 feet, regardless of the elevation of the clouds above 500 feet. In a joint comment, EEI, NRECA, and APPA noted that under the proposed visibility rules, for every foot cloud cover dips below 1,000 feet, the small UAS dips a foot below 500 feet, so that cloud cover at 500 feet would ground all small UAS operations. The commenters suggested that operations in Class G airspace should be allowed up to 500 feet AGL, or the height of cloud cover, whichever is lower. Exelon Corporation further suggested the rule include permission to
operate on the transmission and distribution rights-of-way at altitudes not to exceed the tops of the structures plus 50 feet without weather visibility restrictions. The News Media Coalition suggested eliminating the flight-visibility and cloud-clearance requirements for UAS operated within the parameters in the blanket COA for section 333 exemptions. The specific parameters suggested by the commenter consisted of flight at or below 200 feet AGL and at least (a) 5 nautical miles from an airport having an operational control tower; (b) 3 nautical miles from an airport with a published instrument flight procedure, but not an operational tower; (c) 2 nautical miles from

As discussed earlier, under this rule, the remote pilot in command will be responsible for observing the operating environment for other aircraft and, if necessary, maneuvering the small unmanned aircraft to avoid a collision with other aircraft. However, there is a significant speed difference between a manned aircraft and a small unmanned aircraft. Under part 91, a manned aircraft flying at low altitude could travel at speeds up to 230 to 288 miles per hour (mph).86 On the other hand, a small unmanned aircraft operating under this rule will have a maximum speed of 100 mph and many small unmanned aircraft will likely have a far lower maximum speed.

Because of this difference in maximum speed, the remote pilot in command will need time to respond to an approaching manned aircraft. A minimum flight visibility requirement of 3 statute miles is necessary to ensure that the remote pilot in command can see far enough away to detect a manned aircraft near the area of operation in time to avoid a collision with that aircraft. Additionally, cloud clearance provisions that require the small unmanned aircraft to maintain a distance of at least 500 feet below the cloud and 2,000 feet horizontally away from cloud are necessary to reduce the possibility of having a manned aircraft exit the clouds on an unalterable collision course with the significantly slower small unmanned aircraft. Accordingly, this rule will retain the proposed minimum-flight visibility requirement of 3 statute miles and minimum cloud-distance requirements of 500 feet below the cloud and 2,000 feet horizontally away from the cloud.

In response to ALPA’s concern, the FAA clarifies that the minimum-flight visibility and visual-line-of-sight requirements of this rule are separate requirements that must both be satisfied. The visual-line-of-sight requirement of § 107.31 is intended to ensure that the person maintaining visual line of sight can see the small unmanned aircraft and the immediately surrounding airspace. It is unlikely that a person will be able to maintain visual line of sight of a small unmanned aircraft in compliance with § 107.31 if that aircraft is 3 miles away from him or her. Conversely, the 3-mile visibility requirement
of § 107.51 is intended simply to ensure that the person at the control station is able to see relatively larger manned aircraft that may rapidly be approaching the area of operation. Southern Company suggested that small UAS operations should mirror the VFR weather minimums for manned-helicopter flight and that the Special VFR minimums under 14 CFR 91.157 should also apply to small UAS operations to the extent available for helicopters. The commenter suggested that small UAS operations would satisfy the requirements for Special VFR flight, because only ATC authorization is necessary before Special VFR flight and all small UAS must receive an ATC clearance when operating in controlled airspace. The commenter also asserted that the use of helicopter minimums is appropriate in this rule because, like helicopters, a small UAS is highly maneuverable and easier to land than fixed-wing aircraft. The Small UAV Coalition similarly suggested that the FAA adopt the helicopter cloud-clearance test for small UAS.

The FAA acknowledges that the part 107 visibility requirements for small UAS operations in Class G airspace will be more stringent than the requirements of part 91. Part 91 allows aircraft operating in Class G airspace to operate with 1 statute mile visibility and simply requires the aircraft to keep clear of clouds. However, as numerous commenters pointed out, small UAS operating under this rule may, as a result of their size, be difficult to see for manned-aircraft pilots. Additionally, unlike manned aircraft, small unmanned aircraft will not be required to carry equipage, such as TCAS and ADS-B, that aids in collision avoidance. Because of the additional challenges with collision avoidance raised by small UAS operating under part 107, a more stringent visibility requirement is necessary than the one imposed by part 91 on manned-aircraft operations in Class G airspace.

Vail Resorts asked the FAA to reduce or eliminate cloud clearance requirements in certain terrain, or with certain mitigation in place (e.g., a lighting system on the small UAS). The commenter stated that the minimum-flight-visibility and distance-from-cloud requirements are unnecessarily restrictive in a high alpine environment where the potential for interaction with manned aircraft is incredibly remote, and can be mitigated by other limitations. Venture Partners asserted that its products will contain onboard technology and capabilities that will allow UAS to operate in adverse weather conditions.

The FAA agrees that there could be operations in areas where the likelihood of interaction with manned aircraft is reduced or in which the risk of collision with a manned aircraft is mitigated by other means (such as technological equipage). Accordingly, the FAA has made the visibility and cloud-clearance requirements of part 107 waivable and will consider individual operating environments and other mitigations as part of its review of a waiver request. The FAA plans to use data acquired as part of the waiver process to inform future agency actions that will further integrate UAS into the NAS.

The Airborne Law Enforcement Association requested an exception from the 3- mile minimum flight visibility requirement for public safety operations, saying that, with the visual-line-of-sight restriction, “there are many opportunities to safely utilize UAS technology to the benefit of public safety operations.” The Organization of Fish and Wildlife Information Managers recommended a disaster-response exemption from the 3- mile flight visibility requirement, asserting that UAS flights in conditions with less than 3 miles of visibility could be integral in protecting human life and natural research welfare in the event of a man-made or natural disaster.

As discussed earlier, this rule will not apply to public aircraft operations unless the operator chooses to conduct the operation as a civil aircraft. Thus, public aircraft operations, such as public safety operations conducted by law enforcement agencies, will not be subject to part 107. With regard to the other specific types of operations mentioned in the comments, as discussed previously, the minimum-flight-visibility and cloud clearance requirements of this rule will be waivable. Thus, operations conducted for salutary purposes, such as the ones mentioned by the commenters, could be authorized through the waiver process if the remote pilot establishes that the operation can safely be conducted under the terms of a certificate of waiver.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission, Airports Council International-North America, the American Association of Airport Executives, and Exelon Corporation recommended that the requirement for 3 miles of visibility be from the location of the small unmanned aircraft and not from the location of the ground control station. The Metropolitan Airports Commission stated that the 3-mile visibility requirement is based on a manned aircraft pilot’s vantage point positioned inside the aircraft, which provides a 3- mile observation radius around the aircraft to see and avoid potential hazards. Airports Council International-North America claimed that a 3-mile visibility requirement from the unmanned aircraft instead of the ground control station will prevent cases where the UAS operator operates an aircraft at the limit of the operator’s line of sight. Lloyd’s Market Association and the International Underwriting Association said the 3-mile minimum flight visibility requirement may be difficult to administer and police, and wondered if maximum wind speeds have been taken into account.

This rule will retain the requirement that the minimum visibility must be measured from the control station. The reason for this requirement is to allow the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS to see other aircraft that could be entering the area of operation. The person manipulating the small UAS flight controls will be located at the control station (since the control station is the interface used to control the flight), and thus the minimum-visibility requirement must be measured from the control station. With regard to the comment arguing that the 3-mile minimum flight visibility requirement may be difficult to administer and police, the remote pilot in command must, among other things, ensure that the small UAS operation complies with part 107.

This rule will not impose prescriptive requirements on maximum permissible wind speed because there is a wide range of small UAS that could be operated under part 107. These UAS will have varying ability to respond to wind and a prescriptive regulatory requirement would be more stringent than necessary on certain small UAS while being less stringent than necessary on other UAS. Instead, § 107.49(a)(1) will require the remote pilot in command to assess local weather conditions as part of the preflight assessment required by § 107.49. If the remote pilot in command determines that the wind speed is too high to safely conduct the small UAS operation, then he or she will have to either reschedule the operation or implement mitigations to ensure the safety of the operation.

One commenter asked the FAA to clarify whether the 3-mile flight visibility requirement is horizontal visibility or slant angle visibility. The commenter asserted that there are many situations where radiation or advection fog might obscure horizontal visibility yet bright blue sky is visible above the fog.

The 3-mile flight visibility requirement is based on a slant angle from the control station. In other words, a person standing at the control station of the small UAS must be able to see at a diagonal distance of 3 miles into the sky in order to detect other aircraft that may be approaching the area of operation. This requirement ensures that the remote pilot in command can effectively observe the airspace for presence of other aircraft, and reduces the possibility of the remote pilot or visual observer losing sight of the unmanned aircraft.

To further clarify this concept, the FAA has amended § 107.51(c) to explain that flight visibility refers to the average slant distance from the control station at which prominent unlighted objects may be seen and identified by day and prominent lighted objects may be seen and identified by night.

The University of North Dakota’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences suggested that the rule prohibit small UAS operations above clouds because those operations could endanger manned aircraft flying under instrument flight rules (IFR). In response, the FAA notes that a person is unlikely to be able to maintain visual line of sight of a small unmanned aircraft that is flying above the clouds.

Schertz Aerial Services, the Permanent Editorial Board of the Aviators Model Code of Conduct Initiative, and the City and County of Denver, Colorado suggested that the proposed flight-visibility and minimum-cloud-distance requirements be increased. Schertz Aerial Services said that because UAS are so much smaller than manned aircraft, the proposed 3-mile flight visibility requirement, which was developed for manned aircraft, is not adequate for UAS and should be increased to 5 statute miles. Denver also recommended increasing the minimum flight visibility requirement to 5 statute miles, but only in controlled airspace. The commenter additionally recommended the imposition of a 2,000-foot ceiling for operations in controlled airspace. “Those visibility enhancements,” Denver continued, “will maximize opportunities for both the operator and other aircraft pilots to successfully employ the see-and-avoid technique.”

One commenter said the minimum flight visibility requirement should be increased to 10 to 12 miles and the distance-from-cloud requirements should both be increased by 1,000 feet. Another commenter said the FAA should set a specific percentage or range for cloud coverage to be allowed during flight, in addition to the distance-from-cloud requirements.

The FAA recognizes the fact that increased flight visibility would provide more time for the remote pilot in command to maneuver away from other aircraft. However, the likelihood of the remote pilot seeing other small UAS, other smaller aircraft, or other hazards such as power lines or antennas from a distance of five or more miles is not probable, so such a requirement would not create an additional safety buffer. A 5-mile visibility requirement above 10,000 feet mean sea level (not including the surface to 2,500 feet above ground level) is imposed by part 91 because manned-aircraft pilots have a need for increased visibility at that higher altitude due to permitted airspeeds above 288 mph. A remote pilot in command, on the other hand, will remain on the ground and will have to deal with ground obstacles that impede vision. The remote pilot in command will also be looking into the sky at a slant angle from the ground rather than horizontally in the manner of a manned-aircraft pilot. This means that a remote pilot will generally be challenged to perceive useful information from his or her vision beyond three miles. An increase in the cloud distance requirements poses the same dilemma, unless the object is large enough or distinct enough it will not likely be visible early enough to provide the opportunity to avoid or change course sooner.

PlaneSense and Cobalt Air, commenting jointly, recommended prohibiting a remote pilot from operating a small UAS if the ceiling is lower than 1000 feet MSL. The commenters contended that for manned aircraft, the pilot is in the aircraft and is therefore better able to make a determination about the distance to a cloud from the aircraft than an operator on the ground positioned 1/4 mile away from the unmanned aircraft.

The FAA declines to prohibit small UAS operations when cloud ceilings are lower than 1,000 feet AGL.87 Specifically, the FAA disagrees that the remote pilot in command will not be in a position to determine whether the unmanned aircraft is positioned sufficiently far enough from a cloud to meet the requirements of § 107.51(d). While this rule does not require specific technological equipage to determine altitude of the unmanned aircraft, nothing in this rule precludes the remote pilot in command from doing so as a means to mitigate the risk of cloud clearance requirements. A remote pilot in command may also opt to operate the unmanned aircraft at a sufficiently low altitude that he or she can easily determine the aircraft’s altitude. Further, cloud ceilings can be determined through nearby AWOS/ASOS/ATIS reports, visual cloud observations, or observation of obscuration of nearby prominent landmarks of a known elevation. If a remote pilot in command cannot ensure that the unmanned aircraft will maintain sufficient cloud clearance in accordance with § 107.51(d), that person may not conduct operations until weather conditions improve. As such, no minimum ceiling requirement is necessary in this rule.

Noting that the NPRM would not require a qualified weather observer, one commenter questioned who is responsible for determining visibility at the time of the operation. The commenter further questioned if the regulation has a requirement for the airman trained and certificated for small UAS to receive training and demonstrate competence in making accurate visibility determinations. Another commenter also questioned who determines visibility, and recommended that FAA require as a minimum that VMC exist and that the closest Official Weather Reporting Station be used. Under this rule, the remote pilot in command is ultimately responsible for determining whether a flight can be conducted safely. As part of the preflight assessment required by § 107.49, the remote pilot in command must evaluate local weather conditions, which includes an evaluation of whether those conditions are sufficient to meet the requirements of § 107.51(c) and (d). With regard to competence, as discussed in section III.F.2.j of this preamble, knowledge of aviation weather sources that can be used to inform the small UAS operation will be tested on both the initial and recurrent aeronautical knowledge test. The initial aeronautical knowledge test will also test the airman certificate applicant’s knowledge of effects of weather on small unmanned aircraft performance. For the reasons discussed in section III.F.2.e of this preamble, formal training and practical testing requirements are not a necessary component of this rule.

………………………

ii. Vertical Boundary (Maximum Altitude)
Next, we turn to the vertical boundary of the confined area of operation. Because most manned aircraft operations take place higher than 500 feet above ground level (AGL), the NPRM proposed a 500-foot operating ceiling for small UAS operations. For the reasons discussed below, this rule will reduce the operating ceiling to 400 feet AGL unless the small unmanned aircraft: (1) is flown within a 400-foot radius of a structure, and (2) does not fly higher than 400 feet above the structure’s immediate uppermost limit. This operating-ceiling provision will be waivable.

Several commenters, including the Professional Photographers of America, ALPA, Boeing, Google, and State Farm, supported the 500-foot altitude limit proposed in the NPRM. Some noted that a 500-foot ceiling for UAS operations would strike a positive balance between flexibility for the UAS operator and the safety of manned aircraft operating in the NAS.

Other commenters, including Barrick Gold of North America, argued that the altitude restrictions in the rule are unnecessary because the current airspace stratification and operating rules already provide the requisite level of safety. Barrick added, however, that it would support a buffer of 200 feet below the terminus of Class G airspace. An altitude limit for small UAS operations is necessary in this rule. Given the expected proliferation of small UAS in the NAS, and the safety implications for manned aircraft, the FAA must address the safe use of small UAS in the NAS. Moreover, Congress has directed the FAA to establish a regulatory framework to safely integrate small UAS operations into the NAS. Allowing unrestricted small unmanned aircraft to operate at high altitude without the benefit of additional equipment (for example, transponders and altimeters) and the provision of air traffic services introduces a significant threat of collision to manned aircraft operating in the NAS. Most manned aircraft operations transit the airspace at or above 500 feet AGL, and an altitude limitation provides a necessary barrier between small unmanned aircraft and a significant majority of manned aircraft operations in the NAS. However, as discussed below, this rule will make an exception to the altitude restriction for small UAS operations that are conducted close to a structure. Other commenters, including Northrop Grumman Corporation, AOPA, EAA, and HAI, recommended a reduction in the proposed 500-foot altitude limit. These commenters were concerned about the potential for conflict with manned aircraft operating in the NAS. The United States Ultralight Association and the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association expressed general concern regarding the volume of manned aircraft traffic below 500 feet and the potential for collisions with small unmanned aircraft.

While some commenters did not recommend a specific alternate maximum altitude, most that did favored a 400-foot operating ceiling. Commenters offered a variety of reasons to support a 400-foot altitude limit. One commenter justified a lower altitude by noting it is difficult for the operator to maintain visual contact with the small unmanned aircraft when operated above 500 feet, and a 400-foot limit would provide an added margin of safety. Most commenters stated that a 400-foot altitude limit would provide a reasonable buffer between UAS and manned aircraft operating in the NAS. NAAA remarked that recent narrowly averted collisions involving agricultural aircraft and UAS aircraft justify the establishment of a 400-foot limit. NAAA also noted the importance of the missions performed by aircraft at lower altitude, including agricultural and air ambulance operations. Northrop Grumman and the Aviation Division of the Washington State Department of Transportation asserted that a 500-foot altitude does not provide an adequate buffer between UAS operations and those conducted by manned aircraft.

Other commenters, including the North Central Texas Council of Governments, noted that the 100-foot difference between the limits for model aircraft and UAS aircraft, which would result from the proposed 500-foot altitude ceiling, would create confusion. These commenters pointed out that because it is difficult to distinguish between UAS and model aircraft, the two should have similar altitude restrictions.

Some commenters identified lower ceilings for UAS operations in other countries. For example, one commenter noted that Australia has established a 400-foot limit for UAS operations. Further, Transport Canada cited a similar approach for UAS operations in Canada, noting that a 400-foot operating ceiling provides a margin of safety that considers barometric altimeter error and cold weather temperature corrections.

Some commenters, however, asserted that even a 400-foot maximum altitude is too high. The Professional Helicopter Pilots Association recommended a limit of 200 feet to provide an adequate altitude buffer between UAS and rotorcraft operations. One commenter suggested a 200-foot limit until ADS-B is mandated for UAS. Positive air traffic control was also recommended as a requirement for operations above 200 feet. In contrast, several commenters, including those from the media and agricultural communities, asserted that the proposed 500-foot altitude limit for small unmanned aircraft operations is overly restrictive. One commenter stated that the 500-foot altitude ceiling increases the risk for striking terrain, power lines, or other structures. A commenter also noted that the proposed altitude restriction may contribute to a loss of communication with the aircraft due to terrain and other obstructions.

The most frequently cited reason for raising the altitude limit was to allow the small unmanned aircraft to more effectively perform missions such as search and rescue, aerial surveys, and other applications for industries ranging from agriculture to petroleum, as well as inspections of buildings, bridges and other structures. In addition, several commenters asserted that a 500-foot limit is impractical for radio-controlled soaring. Aerobatic operations would also be severely limited by a 500-foot restriction. Other commenters highlighted the needs of the media industry, remarking that a
500-foot restriction limits the utility of UAS for certain newsgathering operations.

Commenters noted that for these activities, the ability to operate at higher altitudes increases their ability to film news events and access other areas beyond normal reach. Some commenters, including the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, suggested that the 500-foot operating ceiling could be lifted under certain circumstances in remote areas given the uncongested airspace above remote areas. The American Petroleum Institute agreed that a case-by-case process is needed for approval to fly at higher altitudes. In its comments, API noted that the proposed rule effectively eliminates lower-resolution surveillance operations where larger ground sample distances would have value for a variety of activities over broad areas, such as pipeline right-of-way surveying and metocean (meteorology and physical oceanography used in offshore and coastal engineering) data gathering. In addition, in areas with high vegetation, this restriction acts to limit distances across which pre-programmed flights may function even if the visual line-of-sight restriction were modified. One commenter noted this would be similar to what is now codified in 14 CFR 91.119 (b) and (c), and to the precedent established by 14 CFR part 101.

Many commenters, such as Boeing and the News Media Coalition, also focused on the need to permit higher operating altitudes in proximity to certain structures. This would allow small unmanned aircraft to be used to perform inspections and other tasks that would traditionally place persons in harm’s way. The Exelon Corporation noted the need to allow for inspection of tall structures. An individual recommended that the FAA allow operations at higher altitudes within a 2,000-foot radius of certain towers. NoFlyZone.org asserted that UAS operations above 500 feet should be permitted within 250 feet of a structure as long as the operator has permission from that structure’s owner. Skycatch asked that operations above 500 feet be permitted under specific circumstances, such as bridge or building inspections as proposed by AUVSI. The Professional Society of Drone Journalists stated that the airspace above and around buildings should be considered to be the domain of legal UAS operations.

Commenters also recommended mechanisms to allow operations above 500 feet ranging from pilot training and equipment requirements (such as transponders and ADS-B), to the establishment of flight restriction areas or a waiver process. The American Insurance Association requested that UAS aircraft be allowed to operate above 500 feet if accompanied by a visual observer on the ground aided by a mechanical enhancement of his or her sight.

Other commenters noted that an increase in altitude may be appropriate in areas where the threat to manned aircraft is minimal. For example, one commenter proposed that in Class G airspace, the ceiling for UAS operations be raised to the base of the overlying controlled airspace. A variety of other altitudes were proposed. Clean Gulf Associates stated that 1,000 feet is an appropriate altitude, allowing for oil spill skimming targeting operations, where the mid-air threat over water is lower. Prioria Robotics also proposed 1,000 feet. The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers noted that technical developments in the near future will allow for operations up to 1,000 feet with additional equipage and procedural safeguards. Another commenter stated that if an under-10-pound category of UAS aircraft could be created, an altitude of 1,000 feet should be permitted. Another commenter offered that an increase in maximum altitudes is appropriate as size of the UAS aircraft increases. For example, a rotorcraft up to 4 kgs or a fixed-wing aircraft between 6 and 12 kgs would be able to fly up to 700 feet AGL. Rotorcraft up to 20 kgs and fixed wing up between 12 and 24 kgs would be able to fly up to 3,000 feet AGL. These altitude limits would be accompanied by pilot medical and training requirements, as well as additional equipage requirements, such as ADS-B.

One commenter noted that the rule is harsh toward non-hazardous UAS operations. This commenter argued that low-altitude quad copter operations should be given relief to operate at altitudes similar to those used for a commercial moored balloon or kite. The Resource Stewardship Consortia proposed an extension up to 1,400 feet for a proof of concept trial performed in places where the threat of collateral damage is minimal should a failure occur, and for operations that would benefit from a higher altitude.

In response to comments addressing the specific altitude limit, the FAA agrees that a 400-foot ceiling will allow for a significant number of applications for the small UAS community, while providing an added level of safety for manned-aircraft operations. A ceiling of 400 feet AGL will provide an additional 100-foot margin of safety between small UAS operations and a majority of aircraft operations in the NAS. This additional 100-foot buffer will help maintain separation between small unmanned aircraft and most manned aircraft in instances such as the remote pilot losing positive control of the small unmanned aircraft or incorrectly estimating the altitude of the aircraft.

Further, the revised limit addresses other concerns regarding potential confusion between model aircraft and small unmanned aircraft. Specifically, limiting operations to 400 feet is consistent with FAA guidance on model aircraft best practices identified in AC 91-57A, thus standardizing operating altitudes for the majority of small unmanned aircraft flying in the NAS. A 400-foot altitude ceiling is also consistent with the approach adopted in other countries. Specifically, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom all set a 400- foot or lower altitude limit on UAS operations conducted in those countries. While the FAA considered the lower altitudes proposed by commenters, it ultimately determined that these lower limits would unnecessarily restrict small UAS operations without a commensurate increase in safety because the concentration of manned aircraft below 400 feet AGL is much lower than the concentration of manned aircraft at or above 500 feet AGL. The FAA also considered the comment recommending positive air traffic control above 200 feet. The FAA ultimately rejected this recommendation because it is overly burdensome to both remote pilots and the air traffic control system. Air traffic controllers could not reliably provide positive separation for operations at this altitude throughout the NAS, and the benefits to users from such separation efforts would not justify the significant additional workload placed on air traffic controllers or the equipment and training costs to remote pilots. In addition, without additional equipment mandates, the provision of positive air traffic control would be unachievable.

To address the concerns expressed by commenters requesting higher operating altitudes in proximity to buildings, towers, power lines, and other tall structures for the purposes of inspections and repair, the FAA is establishing new provisions in the final rule that will enable those operations in a way that does not compromise aviation safety. Specifically, the FAA notes that 14 CFR 91.119 generally prohibits manned aircraft from operating in close proximity to structures. Section 91.119 requires manned aircraft to stay 500 to 1,000 feet away from the structure, depending on whether the area is congested. Because manned aircraft are not permitted to operate in close proximity to structures, this rule will allow a small unmanned aircraft to fly higher than 400 feet AGL as long as that
aircraft remains within a 400-foot radius of a structure up to an altitude of 400 feet above the structure’s immediate uppermost limit. Allowing higher-altitude small UAS operations within a 400-foot lateral limit of a structure will enable additional operations (such as tower inspection and repair) while maintaining separation between small unmanned aircraft and most manned aircraft operations.

The FAA disagrees that a further increase in altitude is justified. Higher-altitude small unmanned aircraft operating in airspace that is transited by most manned aircraft operations would no longer be separated from those manned aircraft, which would greatly increase the risks of a collision. Most remote pilots of small UAS would also benefit very little from an additional increase in altitude because the visual-line-of-sight restrictions of this rule and the equipment limitations of a small UAS would, in many cases, limit the ability or need to operate at altitudes higher than what is provided for by this rule. Such a limited benefit would not be commensurate with the added risk that a higher altitude would impose upon other users of the NAS.

However, the FAA recognizes that new technologies may increase the feasibility of higher altitude operations. Therefore, to provide flexibility to accommodate new developments, the altitude limitation of this rule will be waivable. Thus, if a remote pilot demonstrates that his or her high-altitude small UAS limitation will not decrease safety, the FAA may allow that operation through a certificate of waiver. This will enable a number of operations, such as research and development for higher-altitude small UAS operations. The FAA is committed to working with the stakeholder community to pursue such options when it is deemed appropriate.

With regard to search and rescue operations, most of these operations are conducted by government entities under COAs as public aircraft operations. Those operations will therefore not be subject to the altitude limitations of this rule.

Several commenters raised concerns regarding a remote pilot’s ability to discern the altitude of the small unmanned aircraft. Commenters including AOPA and GAMA asserted that current UAS lack accurate altimetry systems, making compliance with any altitude restriction difficult. GAMA asked that the FAA clarify how an operator determines the UAS altitude in flight. Similarly, one individual stated that while the altitudes proposed in the rule are in principle sound, they are unenforceable. Other commenters asserted that it is impossible to judge altitude, particularly over precipitous terrain, and that altitude restrictions of any kind may only be relied upon if UAS were required to have altitude limiting devices. The Permanent Editorial Board of the Aviators Model Code of Conduct
proposed that the FAA require the use of a practical technique for UAS operators to estimate their altitude with sufficient accuracy or require the use of a technical solution to ensure compliance.

Remote pilots have effective techniques to determine altitude without mandating the installation of an altimetry system. For example, with the unmanned aircraft on the ground, a remote pilot in command may separate him or herself 400 feet from the aircraft in order to gain a visual perspective of the aircraft at that distance. Remote pilots may also use the known height above the ground of local rising terrain and/or structures as a reference. The FAA acknowledges that these methods of estimating altitude are less precise than equipment-based altitude determinations, which is one of the reasons this rule will increase the separation between manned and small unmanned aircraft by reducing the maximum altitude for small unmanned aircraft to 400 feet AGL.

Additionally, the FAA will provide, in its guidance materials, examples of equipment options that may be used by remote pilots to accurately determine the altitude of their small unmanned aircraft. One example is the installation of a calibrated altitude reporting device on the small unmanned aircraft. This device reports the small unmanned aircraft’s altitude above mean sea level (MSL). By subtracting the MSL elevation of the control station from the small unmanned aircraft’s reported MSL altitude, the aircraft’s AGL altitude may be determined. The installation of a GPS altitude-reporting device may also provide for a requisite level of altitude control. The FAA emphasizes, however, that this equipment is simply one means of complying with the altitude restrictions in this rule. One commenter asked if the proposed 500-foot limit represents the altitude above the launch point or the height of the UAS altitude above the ground. The commenter noted that some topographical features present dramatic changes in altitude. Glider operators raised similar questions regarding altitude over sloping terrain.

The maximum altitude ceiling imposed by this rule is intended to limit the height of the aircraft above the ground over which it is flying (AGL). It is incumbent upon the remote pilot in command to maintain flight at or below this ceiling regardless of the topography.

Several commenters stated that the 500-foot altitude restriction does not address the public’s expectation that airspace (up to 500 feet) above private property is under their control and may not be penetrated without permission. Event 38 Unmanned Systems stated that the FAA should attempt to set a reasonable altitude requirement for overflight of property not controlled by any UAS operator. This commenter proposed a 100-foot limit for incidental incursions and a 300-foot limit for intentional flight across private property without permission. Another commenter suggested requiring small UAS to operate between 400 and 500 feet AGL when flying above private property, unless the remote pilot has obtained the property owner’s permission. Other commenters, including the NJIT
Working Group and the Kansas Livestock Association, commented on the relationship between the final rule requirements and trespass and nuisance protections for private landowners.

Adjudicating private property rights is beyond the scope of this rule. However, the provisions of this rule are not the only set of laws that may apply to the operation of a small UAS. With regard to property rights, trespassing on property (as opposed to flying in the airspace above a piece of property) without the owner’s permission may be addressed by State and local trespassing law. As noted in section III.K.6 of this preamble, the FAA will address preemption issues on a case-by-case basis rather than doing so in a rule of general applicability.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments opposed a 500-foot maximum altitude, stating it is inconsistent with Public Law 112-95 and the 400-foot ceiling identified in Advisory Circular (AC) 91-57.

Public Law 112-95 directs the Department to establish requirements for safe integration of UAS operations into the NAS but does not specify the altitude parameters of such operations. AC 91-57A is advisory in nature and pertains to model aircraft not subject to part 107. However, the 400-foot maximum altitude imposed by this rule is similar to the 400-foot maximum altitude suggested as a best practice for modelers by AC 91-57A. One commenter stated that the COA process should be maintained for operations outside of class G airspace and altitudes above 500 feet. However, with the exception of flight that is within 400 feet of a structure, small unmanned aircraft seeking to fly higher than 400 feet AGL will have to obtain a waiver to do so.

Several commenters recommended the creation of specialized airspace for UAS operations. This may include designated airspace for certain clubs, or the establishment of special airways or corridors. Farris Technology and the University Of Washington promoted the use of corridors or dedicated airways that will allow UAS flights above 500 feet.

Creation of UAS-specific airspace is beyond the scope of this rule because the NPRM did not propose to create any new airspace classifications or reclassify existing airspace.

One commenter suggested that the 500-foot restriction in Class G airspace should only be in place for rotorcraft UAS. However, after careful consideration, the FAA could not find a compelling reason to differentiate between fixed-wing and rotorcraft UAS for the purposes of altitude restrictions. For both aircraft, the threats posed to the NAS are similar. The UAS aircraft class itself does not mitigate those threats in any calculable manner. Therefore, a distinction based on UAS aircraft class is unwarranted. ALPA recommended a change to the preamble discussion regarding the maximum altitude. As currently written, the preamble to the NPRM states that a small unmanned aircraft is prohibited from “travel higher than 500 feet AGL.”95 ALPA recommended replacing the word “travel” with “fly” or “operate.” For added clarity, the FAA will use the terms “fly” or “operate” in discussing the maximum altitude limitation in this preamble.

Several commenters, including Green Vegans, stated that the proposed 500-foot operating ceiling would make it impossible to comply with 14 CFR 91.119, which
prescribes minimum altitudes for part 91 operations. Green Vegans questioned how a small UAS operator could remain in compliance with both part 107 and section 91.119. Except where expressly stated to the contrary, the provisions of part 107 will replace the provisions of part 91 for small UAS operations subject to this rule. Consequently, a small UAS operating under part 107 will not be required to comply with § 91.119

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The NPRM proposed a maximum air speed limit of 87 knots (100 mph) for small unmanned aircraft. The FAA explained that this speed limit is necessary because if there is a loss of positive control, an aircraft traveling at high speed poses a higher risk to persons, property, and other aircraft than an aircraft traveling at a lower speed. The NPRM also noted that a speed limit would have safety benefits outside of a loss-of-positive-control scenario because a small unmanned aircraft traveling at a lower speed is generally easier to control than a higher-speed aircraft. For the reasons discussed below, this rule will impose an 87-knot (100 mph) speed limit. This rule will, however, make the pertinent speed measurement the groundspeed rather than the airspeed of the small unmanned aircraft. The speed limit will also be waivable. Commenters including NAMIC, the Drone User Group Network, and the Remote Control Aerial Platform Association supported the proposed maximum airspeed. These commenters generally noted that the speed limitation of 100 mph seems reasonable for small UAS operating within visual line of sight.

Other commenters, including the Air Medical Operators Association, the Virginia Department of Aviation, and SWAPA, stated that FAA should lower the maximum permissible airspeed (e.g., to 50 or 75 mph) because, the commenters argued, the proposed speed of 100 mph is too high and would pose undue risks. Several commenters, including Texas A&M University, HAI, the Virginia Department of Aviation and others, asserted that the NPRM failed to demonstrate the safety of the proposed speed limitation. These commenters argued that it would be extremely difficult to maintain positive control of a small unmanned aircraft flying at 100 mph.

Some commenters, including the American Association for Justice, the United States Ultralight Association, and the State of Nevada, asserted that the kinetic energy of a 55-pound object moving at 100 mph could cause significant damage to large aircraft. The US Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association, the Metropolitan Airports Commission, and Predesa stated that a lower maximum speed would provide additional time for UAS operators and pilots of manned aircraft to see and avoid each other. Several of these commenters, including the Metropolitan Airports Commission and Kansas State University UAS Program, stated that a 100 mph speed limit would make it extremely difficult (if not impossible) for an operator to maintain visual line of sight with the unmanned aircraft. NBAA, the Airports Council International—North America and the American Association of Airport Executives recommended that the FAA conduct further study and risk assessment regarding appropriate speed limitations for this type of UAS. The Permanent Editorial Board of the Aviators Model Code of Conduct Initiative argued that FAA should establish a lower maximum speed that will create no greater harm than is caused by most birds (approximately 30 knots) until such time as further data demonstrates the safety of a higher speed limitation.

A speed limit of 87 knots (100 mph) must be viewed within the context of the overall regulatory framework of part 107. In other words, a small unmanned aircraft may reach a speed of 87 knots only if the remote pilot in command can satisfy all of the applicable provisions of part 107 while flying the small unmanned aircraft at 87 knots. For example, since this rule requires small UAS operations to be conducted within visual line of sight, a remote pilot in command may not allow the small unmanned aircraft to reach a speed where visual-line-of-sight cannot be maintained in accordance with § 107.31. Additionally, as discussed in section III.E.3.b.vi of this preamble, the remote pilot in command must, prior to flight, assess the operating environment and consider risks to persons and property in the vicinity both on the surface and in the air. The remote pilot in command must also ensure that the small unmanned aircraft will pose no undue hazard to other aircraft, people, or property in the event of a loss of control of the aircraft for any reason. Thus, if the remote pilot in command plans to have an operation in which the small unmanned aircraft will travel at 87 knots, that remote pilot will, as part of the preflight assessment process, need to take precautions to ensure that the unmanned aircraft will not pose an undue hazard to other aircraft, people, or property on the ground. Those precautions will likely be greater than the precautions that a remote pilot in command will need to take for a small unmanned aircraft traveling at a lower speed. Accordingly, a maximum speed limit of 87 knots is appropriate because the remote pilot in command will have to implement mitigations commensurate with the risk posed by his or her specific small UAS operation.

Other commenters, including Textron Systems recommended no limitations regarding airspeed, arguing that as long as the operator can maintain visual line of sight and control of the UAS, there should be no performance limitations.

A speed limit is generally necessary for small unmanned aircraft because an aircraft traveling at high speed poses a higher risk to persons, property, and other aircraft than an aircraft traveling at lower speed. As discussed earlier, the other parameters of this rule (such as visual line of sight and the preflight assessment conducted by the remote pilot in command) mitigate this risk for small unmanned aircraft traveling at speeds up to 87 knots. However, those parameters do not address the risk posed by small unmanned aircraft traveling at speeds faster than 87 knots. Accordingly, this rule will retain the proposed 87-knot speed limit but will make that limit waivable. As part of the waiver process, the FAA will consider operation-specific mitigations to address additional risk posed by higher-speed small UAS operations.

The Kansas State University UAS Program and SWAPA questioned whether there would be any commercial applications of small UAS that would necessitate a 100 mph airspeed. Further, several commenters, including Modovolate Aviation, asserted that many small UAS, such as those employing multi-rotor technology, may not need to or may not be able to reach a speed of 100 mph.

The FAA agrees that there will likely be small unmanned aircraft incapable of reaching a speed of 87 knots. The FAA also agrees that there will likely be small UAS operations that are incapable of satisfying the other provisions of this rule, such as visual line of sight, at a speed of 87 knots. However, that is not a sufficient justification for reducing the maximum permissible speed for all small unmanned aircraft because there may be small UAS operations that can reach a speed of 87 knots and operate safely at that speed in compliance with all applicable provisions of part 107.

The New Hampshire Department of Transportation noted that the FAA did not propose any specific equipage requirements for small UAS that would be used to determine airspeed. Similarly, CAPA stated that the NPRM does not require or define how the operator will maintain operations below a specified airspeed other than visually, which the commenter said would be very difficult to do when operating in congested airspace and scanning for other conflicts.

Aerius recommended that the FAA amend the proposed regulatory text to make any speed limitations based on groundspeed because many UAS are not equipped with a system that would provide airspeed to the small UAS operator. Several individuals noted that multi-rotor helicopter UAS cannot sense airspeed, only groundspeed. Another individual suggested that the regulatory text be amended to reference GPS-generated airspeed because all UAS do not have the equipment to provide airspeed to the operator.

As noted by the commenters, the provisions of this rule will not require small UAS to be equipped with a system that would provide calibrated airspeed to the remote pilot in command. The FAA also notes that the groundspeed of the small unmanned aircraft is what is pertinent to the safety of a small UAS operation because that is the information that specifies how quickly the aircraft is moving relative to the ground in proximity to where the remote pilot is located. Because changing the standard to groundspeed rather than calibrated airspeed would not have a detrimental effect on safety and because many unmanned aircraft may not have the equipage necessary to measure calibrated airspeed, the FAA agrees with the commenters and has changed the maximum airspeed standard to be a function of groundspeed. A small unmanned aircraft’s groundspeed could be determined by measures such as GPS-based speed, visual estimation, a radar gun, or timed travel across a fixed distance. This rule will retain the maximum speed limit of 87 knots (100 mph), but that limit will be a measure of groundspeed rather than airspeed.

A few individuals (who self-identified as recreational operators of model aircraft) said the proposed maximum speed would preclude them from holding certain types of model aircraft competitions. In response, the FAA emphasizes that, as discussed in section III.C.4 of this preamble, part 107 will not apply to model aircraft operations that meet the criteria of section 336 of Public Law 112-95.

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