You too can be ‘drone commander’ under FAA’s new rules

© Heino Kalis
Federal aviation authorities are about to drop the ban on commercial drone use, opening the door to private UAV operators across the US. Getting approved and certified may still take a while, however, so hold off on those drone pizza deliveries.

After years of allowing commercial drone operations only under special dispensation and very strict rules – to the point where Amazon moved their delivery testing to Canada – the Federal Aviation Administration is rolling out new rules for commercial operators, from big companies to individual entrepreneurs.

Aspiring drone operators will have to pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved “knowledge testing center,” and a security background check by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Getting all the paperwork will be the bottleneck, as the agency is still setting up testing sites. So far, the FAA has received applications from 25 sites.

“By the end of the year, we plan to choose six test sites for civil unmanned aircraft. Congress required us to do so, and we need to make sure we use these sites to obtain the best data that we can,” said FAA administrator Michael Huerta, speaking Thursday at an aerospace industry conference. Ensuring safety in the “increasingly congested” skies was the agency’s top priority, he added.

Even then, commercial drones will only be able to fly in daylight, no higher than 400 feet, and within the operator’s line of sight.

While the FAA is looking into streamlined procedures to expedite applications from police, approximately 80 law enforcement agencies are already using drones under special certificates of authorization, Huerta said.

“Our current policy provides for any public user that would like to apply for a certificate of operation to operate unmanned aircraft within national airspace, they are free to apply,” Huerta said. “But I wouldn’t say we have a particular priority one way or the other.”

As a result of the new rules, the FAA is expecting 7,500 more commercial drones in the US over the next five years, Huerta said.

Earlier this year, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems estimated that the commercial drone industry has the potential to create more than 100,000 jobs and have an economic impact of over $82 billion by 2025, if the government can get workable operating regulations into effect quickly.

Assuming everything goes well, this still doesn’t mean private drones will be able to operate within the 30-mile radius around the nation’s capital, declared by the FAA to be “national security airspace” and strictly off-limits to commercial and even hobbyist unmanned aircraft.