Monday, December 28, 2020

Federal Aviation Administration Issues Long-Anticipated Rules for Commercial Drones

Regulations are expected to accelerate the rollout of package delivery, other uses

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
Updated December 28, 2020 9:25 pm ET

U.S. regulators established industry-wide requirements for remote identification of drones, along with new safeguards for flights over populated areas and at night, in a long-awaited effort to expand commercial use of the craft.

The pair of final rules issued Monday is intended to promote eventual widespread home delivery of small packages and a multitude of other applications for pilotless vehicles that are currently sharply restricted. But with a single announcement, the Federal Aviation Administration is formally pivoting from approving case-by-case exemptions to setting broad safety standards the industry has long sought.

The new approach, replacing stringent protections that currently bar practically all home-delivery options, go into effect in two months, but some requirements are likely to take years to implement.

The detailed regulations, which total more than 700 pages and parts of which had been in the works since the Obama administration, also aim to address concerns related to law enforcement, national security and privacy protection.

“They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages,” FAA chief Steve Dickson said in a written statement accompanying the rules. Mr. Dickson has told colleagues he intends to stay on under the Biden administration, according to people involved in the conversations, to fill out the remainder of his five-year term ending in 2024. The rules are unlikely to be affected by other personnel changes.

Since some of the important details differ from those contained in earlier draft proposals, initial industry reaction was positive but muted. Some aspects of the rules “will have additional untold benefits for American society,” according to Brian Wynne, chief executive of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the largest drone-industry trade association. “We look forward to reviewing these rules and working with the FAA on implementation.”

The rules won’t immediately end restrictions on drones operating in higher-altitude airspace or in the vicinity of airports. They also don’t spell out safety requirements for large autonomous or remotely piloted craft capable of carrying passengers, often called urban aerial vehicles. Flights of such airborne taxis remain years away from becoming a reality in U.S. skies.

Major changes from the FAA’s previous strategy include eliminating requirements that drones transmit identifying information and their position over the internet. Instead, newly manufactured drones covered by the rules, typically weighing less than 55 pounds, will be manufactured with onboard radio transmitters for such purposes. Existing models will have to be retrofitted with the technology. That process could take years, for new and existing drones alike.

In addition, the FAA decided that in most cases even the smallest drones, weighing less than half a pound, must be designed to avoid exposed rotating parts that could cause injuries to people below. The rules also lay out a complex series of technical measures to gauge acceptable risks in the event malfunctioning drones crash to the ground.

The smallest drones also are mandated to have functioning remote identification systems if they fly over crowds, stadiums or open-air concerts.

The FAA has a history of fits and starts devising some of the standards, particularly as technology advanced rapidly and the industry pushed for new rules. At the same time, federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies wanted enhanced protections against the dangers posed by the possibility of rogue, hostile or terrorist drones.

Roughly one million recreational drones are registered in the U.S., and the FAA projects nearly that many commercial craft will be registered by 2024. Pilotless systems already are commonly employed for inspecting pipelines and railroad tracks; monitoring warehouse and industrial facilities; and assisting emergency responders.

Four years ago senior FAA officials were poised to propose an initial package of remote identification rules, a step industry leaders have said is essential to expanding operations. But barely days before those regulations were prepared for publication, leaders of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and national-security agencies wanted changes. The upshot, according to industry and government officials, was extensive discussion that helped shape the document released Monday.

The final rules also are supported by groups representing model aircraft hobbyists, which in the past said they were unfairly treated by FAA regulations.

Since late 2018, the FAA has joined with industry and academic researchers to create pilot projects testing various airborne identification technologies. But according to some industry officials, the rules in the short term will impede rather than promote development of separate, low-altitude traffic control networks geared specifically for drone operations. The FAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have indicated such networks eventually will be based on internet connections. But for now, according to the FAA’s own document, the agency dropped the web-based concept in the face of significant public opposition and comments about technical challenges.

The rules also appear out of step with international efforts to develop web-based networks spanning regions or countries. The aviation arm of the United Nations has been deliberating on ways to promote such potential entities to identify and track drones across national boundaries. Web-based solutions still are in the early stages, though in some ways they can be better secured from hackers than public radio signals.

Without remote identification equipment, drones will be permitted to fly only in limited areas designated by the FAA. For night operations, drones will need anti-collision lights and operators will need special training. The FAA also agreed to create a new regulatory path for the smallest category of drones to fly over populated areas. Their reliability and safety will have to be vetted by the agency before it authorizes those flights.


  1. "The final rules also are supported by groups representing model aircraft hobbyists, which in the past said they were unfairly treated by FAA regulations."

    As a life long RC pilot, well, that's news to me. The AMA and EAA were critical of the way the process was heavily weighted toward Amazon and other package delivery business interests and there was almost no one at the table from the hobby industry or recreational fliers of RC equipment. At the time I'm writing this the AMA is still studying the rule on RemoteID, as it is known. No doubt the WSJ has business in mind.

  2. Unfortunately the AMA never stepped up to the plate for RC hobbyists.
    They shunned multicopters, and drones when that is what young hobbyists wanted to fly. I've long ago stopped supporting AMA as it just had a different agenda for a small subset of RC hobbyists and not all RC hobbyists at large.

  3. Not too worried, I have a feeling these operations will cost to much to live beyond the PR hype.

  4. There seems to be a lot of pre empted statements on that doocument,it has been clear now for some time that the authorities have favoured commercial operators and trodden on the model hobbyist,yes we have been unfairly treated both in the USA and the UK.

  5. People skilled at tossing sneakers with laces tied together to decorate overhead cables will be delighted to try their hand at "toss and win a prize".

    A jump rope quickly flung would also be effective and has the advantage of plausible deniability by being in normal usage while waiting for a drone to get on final approach.

    People adapt to change.

    1. LOL yep that's true but there is one thing that needs to be taken into consideration: you have to know the drone's path is headed your way to prepare to take it out with its cargo. That, or someone just has no life and can sit outside all day just hoping he'll have a chance encounter with one flying.