The Current State of Drone Regulations, FAA Rules, and What's Coming Soon for Aerial Videographers

It seems like at least once a week I find myself having a conversation with a filmmaker or photographer who is struggling to understand the current state of rules, with regard to the commercial use of drones. And who can blame them? Digging through the FAA's website to get clear information is a painful exercise, and things continue to change every few months. This video features Chris Newman, a professional drone pilot, to break the current policies down in a clear language, and he tells us what to expect next from the FAA.

I'd skip to about 2:40 in the video to get right to the point, there's a lot of background information about Devin and Chris before that, so if you want to get right to it, just skip ahead.

Here's a rundown of important points Chris covers:

• if you don't make money flying, you're considered a "hobbyist"

• if you are a hobbyist, all you have to do is register your drone online for $5

• failure to register as a hobbyist could leave you open for expensive fines if you fly in restricted areas

• if you make money flying, you are considered to be "commercial"

• commercial flyers need to apply for an FAA 333 exemption to fly legally

• commercial flyers are required to have a pilot's license (sport, private, or recreation)

As far as what's coming next from the FAA, many of us (myself included) are waiting for an updated set of rules with an easier system to register for commercial flying, which would include not having to get a pilot's license. In February, this happened: (from faa.gov)

The FAA is establishing an aviation rulemaking committee with industry stakeholders to develop recommendations for a regulatory framework that would allow certain UAS to be operated over people who are not directly involved in the operation of the aircraft. The FAA is taking this action to provide a more flexible, performance-based approach for these operations than what was considered for Micro UAS. The committee will begin its work in March and issue its final report to the FAA on April 1.

That report was filed, and now it's up to the FAA to decide what they are going to change based on this report. According to Chris in the video above, there's a bill working through Congress right now (the Micro-drone Bill) which would allow commercial flying without a 333 exemption, if your drone weighs under 4.4lbs. This would include the Phantom series of drones.

Lastly, Chris says that in June of this year, a new law (Part 107) is planned to come out that might replace the 333 exemption law, which would make it so you don't need your pilot's license. We won't know for sure until we hear from Congress, how this will affect current and future commercial flying, but we are certainly all anxious to find out.

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2 Comments

I like to think of them more like guide lines....

A few corrections:
a) Commercial use is not predicated on making money. The standard is whether or not the "furtherance of a business" is the purpose of the flight. Consider real estate agents and farmers. They are not charging anyone anything for the images, but they may not shoot from a drone without the Section 333 exemption and licensed pilot as the PIC.
b) There is no ambiguity with regard to whether the licensed pilot must merely be present or at the controls. That requirement in the exemption clearly states that the PIC (pilot in control) must be licensed.You'd have to do some real mental gymnastics to think the guy standing next to you with no controller in his hands is "in control."
c) The micro drone rule was already shot down, and in its place is the special rule making committee you reference in the pull quote below the video, and pertains to commercial use of drones over people. This is a risk based approach that imposes increasing restrictions as the sUAS crosses thresholds, the first being weight, and the subsequent categories being tied to its likelihood of causing a level 3 injury using a well established scale. It should also be noted that the entirety of the proposed rule for these classes is subject to all provisions and restrictions of the Final Part 107 rule, whenever that actually gets done.
d) With regard to flying commercially without an exemption and pilot license in hopes that the FAA will continue to play softball, consider this: as more and more pilots spend thousands of dollars to be compliant, they are quite likely to try to control competition by educating clients and pressure authorities to pursue violators more aggressively. I think these comments and the comments on the drone lawyers site give a false sense of security. Anyone can easily look at a photographer's website and then search the free regs site to see if they hold an exemption, and then use the airman lookup to see if they are a licensed pilot.

This stuff is a mess and the slow motion process is just agonizing. Many are waiting for the final Part 107 to avoid having to get a pilot license, but that could be quite a while (most think June 2016 is a pipe dream) and there is no guarantee that the new idea for a knowledge test only won't be red-lined as it goes through the sausage factory on the hill.