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FAA Gains Traction in Developing Rules Governing Drones in Flight Over People

On April 6, a committee convened by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its recommendations for permissible flights of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) over people. The FAA’s Micro UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee, consisting of advocacy groups and companies in the UAS industry, presented the FAA with “recommendations for a performance-based standard that would allow small UAS (under 55 pounds) to be operated over people who are not directly participating in the operation of the UAS or under a covered structure.” The committee said the risk posed by certain UAS flying over people is “injury or death to persons on the ground.”

The recommendations include the creation of four categories to assess and limit risks to persons on the ground. The following are the four categories recommended by the committee:

Category 1: For a small UAS that weighs less than 0.55 pounds (250 grams), operations over people would be permitted under very limited restrictions. Category one is designed for a toy UAS or a small UAS approximately the size of a smartphone that poses a low risk when flown over people.

Category 2: For a small UAS weighing between four and five pounds that creates a low risk of serious injury based on its energy profile, operations over people would be permitted as long the operator maintains a minimum distance of 20 feet above people’s heads or 10 feet laterally away from people on the ground. There are a number of small UAS currently on the market that are expected to fit within this category.

Category 3: For a small UAS weighing between six and eight pounds that creates a moderate risk of serious injury based on their energy profile and meets certain manufacturer certification requirements, operations would be permitted over some people if they are incidental to the operation. In this category, operators would not be permitted to fly over crowds of people, but could fly over a closed or restricted access worksite or over transient or incidental pedestrians so long as the overhead flight was not sustained.

Category 4: For a small UAS weighing between six and eight pounds that creates a moderate risk of serious injury based on their energy profile and meets certain manufacturer certification requirements, operations over people would be permitted in accordance with a required documented risk mitigation plan. In this category, operations over crowds would be permitted. The documented risk mitigation plan would have to meet voluntary consensus standards to be established later.

Flights that are not conducted over people will be subject to the requirements of the general small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) once finalized. The next step is for the FAA to present a formal rulemaking to address small UAS flights over people. The FAA believes it will issue those rules by the end of this year with a final rulemaking sometime in 2017. In addition, Congress is considering FAA legislation that would include statutory requirements for small UAS flights over people.

© 2020 BARNES & THORNBURG LLPNational Law Review, Volume VI, Number 105


About this Author

Connie Lahn, Barnes Thornburg Law Firm, Minneapolis, Corporate and Litigation Law Attorney

Connie A. Lahn is the managing partner of the Minneapolis office of Barnes & Thornburg. She is a member of the Finance, Insolvency and Restructuring Department and co-chairs the Asset Revitalization Practice Group. Ms. Lahn is also the co-chair of the firm’s Special Servicer Team. She also serves on the firm's diversity and inclusion committee. Ms. Lahn focuses her practice on bankruptcy law, workouts, equipment leasing issues, foreclosures, real estate remedies, commercial mortgage-backed securities defaults, and related commercial litigation. Additionally, she...

Clifford G. Maine, Barnes Thornburg Law Firm, Grand Rapids, Corporate Law Attorney

Clifford G. Maine is chairman of the firm’s Aviation Law Group. Mr. Maine's practice encompasses a wide variety of aviation law practice areas. He serves as general counsel to numerous aviation organizations, including the Southwest Michigan Regional Airport Authority.

Mr. Maine’s aviation clients include some of the largest corporate flight departments in the world. He has structured numerous aviation transactions, including domestic and foreign-based aircraft purchase and sale transactions, like-kind exchanges, timeshare agreements, interchange agreements, joint and fractional ownership agreements, personal and executive use policies, FAA registrations, Capetown International Registry, and aircraft leasing transactions. Mr. Maine also provides legal counsel on tax-related aviation issues including federal excise tax planning, state sales and use tax planning, and depreciation planning.

In addition to his transactional practice, Mr. Maine regularly represents clients in complex aviation lawsuits and frequently advises on aviation insurance coverage matters, warranty matters, ongoing service requirements, and regulatory requirements.

He is a founding member and Chair of the Tax Committee of the National Business Aircraft Association and serves on the Board of Directors of the Michigan Business Aircraft Association. Mr. Maine also serves on the State Bar of Michigan Aviation Section (a section of the bar in which he acted as a founding member and past chairperson).

Roger A. Maldonado, Barnes, Revenue Bonds Lawyer, Bankruptcy Law Attorney

Roger A. Maldonado is an associate in the Minneapolis office of Barnes & Thornburg LLP where he is a member of the firm’s Government Services and Finance and Finance, Insolvency and Restructuring Departments.

As a member of the Government Services and Finance Department, Mr. Maldonado concentrates his practice on municipal finance with an emphasis on revenue bond work for cities, counties, underwriters and banks. He advises both public and private clients on public finance relating to the issuance of revenue bonds, general obligation bonds...

Kenneth D. Suzan, Barnes Thornburg Law Firm, Minneapolis, Intellectual Property and Litigation Law Attorney
Of Counsel

Kenneth D. Suzan is of counsel in Barnes & Thornburg LLP's Minneapolis, Minnesota office and is a member of the firm's Intellectual Property Department.

Mr. Suzan has experience in the areas of trademark law, copyright law, Internet law, social media law, domain names, and service mark matters. He has counseled his clients on a variety of issues ranging from the inception of a trademark to ultimate registration, licensing and enforcement. Mr. Suzan counsels and assists wearable technology companies to protect brand names through trademark,...