The Yellow Brick Road of FAA Drone Regulations

This post provides a few helpful links to get you started on the journey of understanding Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations for UAS.  Come back later and look for updates.

There are three basic categories of UAS operations as defined by the FAA – LINK

  1. Public. This includes public entities such as federal and local governments, police departments, universities, etc. Public entities must obtain a Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA for approval to operate. This is a lengthy/drawn out process that takes months to materialize.
  2. Civil. This includes commercial and private industry operators. Civilian operators do not have to obtain a Certificate of Authorization or Waiver otherwise known as a COA. They do, however, need approval to operate by obtaining a Special Airworthiness Certificate (SAC) from the FAA. The necessary steps for SAC obtainment are cumbersome. The one step that stands out is the necessary requirement of being a certified pilot regardless of aircraft size or operating altitude. This is a great barrier since the vast majority of people interested in operating UAS are not certified pilots.
  3. Recreation / Sport. Any person operating a model-aircraft UAS for recreation or sport or hobby falls into this category. Hobbyists are to abide by the 1981 document AC 91-57 and fly without certification or approval. The basic standards of AC 91-57 are: operation away from populated areas, maximum flying height of 400 ft above ground level, remain within line-of-sight, vehicle must be less than 55 pounds.

Start your detail journey here:

  • FAA Unmanned Aircraft Q&ALINK
  • Fact Sheet – Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)LINK
  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Certifications and AuthorizationsLINK
  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Regulations & PoliciesLINK
  • Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned AircraftLINK

Next, get a handle on the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. LINK. See Subtitle B for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Then take a look at the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Comprehensive PlanLINK

The FAA also has a roadmap for integrating drones. Check out the Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) Roadmap – LINK

The FAA has issued Restricted Category SACs for two “small” UAS weighing less than 55 pounds that had previous military acceptance of the designs – LINK

There are six UAS test sites for drones – Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia

  • Here is the FAA’s original Press Release – LINK
  • Here is the Fact Sheet – FAA UAS Test Site ProgramLINK
  • Here is the FAQ for UAS Test SitesLINK.

There is a Notice of Intent to Establish the FAA Center of Excellence (COE) for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) –  LINK

The Department of the Interior (DOI) Office of Aviation Services (OAS) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) regarding operation of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) in Class G airspace. – LINK

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) and FAA signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is the establishing the platform upon which the AMA and the FAA will jointly work to ensure the continued safe operation of model aircraft in the National Airspace System. – LINK

But wait, there’s more. You need to understand Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) and FAA Advisory Circulars (AC).  FARs are mandatory, but ACs are not.  Abiding by Advisory Circulars is ‘strongly recommended.’  The FAA Advisory Circular that has the biggest impact right now is  AC 91-57.

This FARs link is a good resource to have for all aircraft operators including recreation / sport.  Every pilot should be aware of and comply with Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) and Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) that may affect your area of operation. Current TFRs and NOTAMs are available for viewing by using the FAR’s link.

Regarding those flying model aircraft for commercial purposes it should be noted that the recent Pirker case law has implications. As noted here by a former top attorney for the FAA:

..the FAA created its own legal confusion by relying on advisory (as opposed to regulatory) methods for distinguishing model aircraft (which could include the small drone operated by Mr. Pirker) from other aircraft beginning in 1981.  Its attempt to retroactively distinguish model aircraft based on the nature of their operations (commercial vs. non-commercial) is unenforceable as that distinction has only been made via public notices (first starting in 2007) and not by  rulemaking.  Since notices are not rules, they are legally unenforceable.

See this chart of International Airspace Classifications.  Click on image to enlarge.

Airspace Classifications

Congratulations! You have reached the Emerald City!

…well, maybe not yet.  Check back later to keep up the latest regulations.

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Colin Snow

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