The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been busy even in the midst of the government shutdown. Last week, Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao unveiled a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or drones) flights over people and at night.

For flights over people, the regulation breaks UAS into three categories:

Category 1: Includes all UAS that weigh 0.55 pounds or less. These UAS will be permitted to fly over people under FAA Part 107 regulations without any additional requirements.

Category 2: This category is not based on weight. Instead, the manufacturer must prove to the FAA that in the event of a collision the UAS will not injure a person more severely than if the person were hit with a rigid object that transferred 11 ft.-lbs. of kinetic energy. UAS that meet this requirement can be flown under Part 107 without additional restrictions.

Category 3: This category is for UAS that will not injure a person any more seriously than if the person were struck with a rigid object that transferred 25 ft.-lbs. of kinetic energy. These UAS would have additional operating limitations –these UAS cannot operate over an open air assembly of people, must be conducted in a restricted access site, and would not be permitted to hover over people directly.

While this is certainly a step in the right direction for drone flights over people, the FAA clarified that the final rule will not be released until the UAS remote identification rulemaking is completed.

For UAS flights at night, the FAA will require additional knowledge testing and training of the operators, and will also require the UAS to be equipped with an anti-collision light that is visible for at least three statute miles.

The FAA also announced that it seeks public comment on several safety and security issues related to UAS operation:

  • Stand-Off Distances: Should there be specific stand-off distances from persons and structures? What should those distances be? Will limitations like this affect operations and training?
  • Performance Limits: Should there be additional performance limitations on UAS –for example, altitude and maximum speed limits?
  • Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM): How should a UTM system be operated? What types of data should the system require? What flights need to utilize it?
  • Payload Limits: Should the list of payload prohibitions be expanded?
  • Design Requirements: Should there be design requirements for UAS that conduct complex operations (e.g. beyond visual line of sight)? What should those standards be? Who should set those standards?

Secretary Chao said, “We are not in the business of picking technology winners and losers. Our philosophy is to encourage the widest possible development of safe new transportation technologies so consumers and communities can choose the mix of options that suits them best.”

The final version of these notices will be published in the Federal Register as soon as possible. When they are published, there will be a 60-day Notice and Comment period for the public.