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This rule finalizes the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking entitled Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (the NPRM). The NPRM proposed operating and certification requirements to allow small unmanned aircraft systems (small UAS) to operate for non-hobby and non-recreational purposes. A small UAS consists of a small unmanned aircraft (which, as defined by statute, is an unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds) and equipment necessary for the safe and efficient operation of that aircraft. The FAA has accommodated non-recreational small UAS use through various mechanisms, such as special airworthiness certificates, exemptions, and certificates of waiver or authorization (COAs). This rule is the next phase of integrating small UAS into the NAS.
The following are examples of possible small UAS operations that can be conducted under the framework in this rule:
- Crop monitoring/inspection;
- Research and development;
- Educational/academic uses;
- Power-line/pipeline inspection in hilly or mountainous terrain;
- Antenna inspections;
- Aiding certain rescue operations;
- Bridge inspections;
- Aerial photography; and
- Wildlife nesting area evaluations.
Because of the potential societally beneficial applications of small UAS, the FAA has been seeking to incorporate the operation of these systems into the national airspace system (NAS) since 2008. In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Pub. L. No. 112–95). Section 333 of the Act directed the Secretary to determine whether UAS operations posing the least amount of public risk and no threat to national security could safely be operated in the NAS and, if so, to establish requirements for the safe operation of these systems in the NAS, prior to completion of the UAS comprehensive plan and rulemakings required by section 332 of Public Law No. 112–95.
On February 23, 2015, as part of its ongoing efforts to integrate UAS operations in the NAS and in accordance with section 333 of Public Law No. 112–95, the FAA issued the NPRM proposing to amend its regulations to adopt specific rules for the operation of small UAS in the NAS. Based on its consideration of the comments submitted in response to the NPRM, and its experience with the certification, exemption, and COA process, the FAA has developed the framework in this rule to enable certain small UAS operations to commence upon adoption of this rule and accommodate technologies as they evolve and mature. This framework allows small UAS operations for many different non-recreational purposes, such as the ones discussed previously, without requiring airworthiness certification, exemption, or a COA.