FAA Moves to Expand Operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

November 18, 2016

Earlier this week (on November 14, 2016), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) a proposed significant new unmanned air systems (UAS) regulation to further liberalize use of small drones in commercial operations.  FAA has stated its intention to publish the new regulation to the public before the end of this year. If the new rule goes into effect, it could allow operators of small UASs to be able to fly the drones over the general public in outside areas – which is yet one more step towards the genuine commercialization of drones.

The current small UAS rule, effective last August, prohibits the operation of small UAS over any persons not directly participating in the operation, or not under a covered structure or a stationary vehicle.  This presents real operational limitations on drone utilization.  However, according to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within OMB, the new rulemaking – which has not been released to the public – “would address the performance-based standards and means-of-compliance for operation of small UASs over people not directly participating in the operation or not under a covered structure or inside a stationary vehicle that can provide reasonable protection from a falling small unmanned aircraft,” i.e., the general public in the great outdoors.

However, first things first: OMB needs to approve the proposed new rule before the rule is issued, even as a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM). Regardless of whether the rule is issued as a proposed rule, or an interim final rule (IFR), it will be subject to public comment following OMB approval.  In addition, interested parties may also seek to meet with OMB prior to OMB’s approval of the new proposed or interim rule.  Such a meeting provides a possible opportunity to influence the language of the proposed or interim rule before it is issued to the public for comments. 

Finally, it is important to note that the fate of the new rule is uncertain because Republican lawmakers have urged federal agencies to freeze their rulemaking activities until the new presidential administration takes over in January.

Steptoe’s UAS team advises a variety of clients on UAS registration and airspace authorizations under existing Federal regulations and we are prepared to assist stakeholders in navigating the changing regulatory arena. We welcome the opportunity to assist those with an interest in the proposed regulations by coordinating meetings with the OMB or preparing public comments.