After months of delays and much anticipation, the Federal Aviation Administration finally released its final rule on small drones. The rule represents an important, long-delayed step toward establishing comprehensive regulations for flying small unmanned aerial systems and integrating them into the national airspace.

Industry experts have argued for years that the United States risked falling behind in the burgeoning drone market and missing out on countless opportunities for growth. The new rule should expand the growth of the US commercial drone industry, catalyze American innovation in the global marketplace, and maintain the technological superiority of US military drones. But there’s work left to do.

WIRED Opinion


Rachel Stohl is the director of the conventional defense program at the Stimson Center, where she leads the Center’s Drone program. Shannon Dick is a research associate in the program.

The rule, which takes effect in August, applies to drones used for commercial purposes and weigh less than 55 pounds. It works to ensure safety and mitigate the risks UAVs can pose to larger aircraft. Operators must keep their drones within their visual line of sight, must only fly in daylight (unless the aircraft has anti-collision lights), and can’t fly faster than 100 mph, or above 400 feet (with a few exceptions).

The FAA will now require drone operators to get a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating, or fly under direct supervision by someone with such a certificate. That’s a smart change from the original system, which demanded drone pilots get licenses to fly actual aircraft—a cumbersome and often costly endeavor. (Some pilots found workarounds, like learning to fly hot air balloons to mitigate the time and cost of obtaining pilot certification.)

Still, significant gaps in FAA regulations remain. This rule doesn’t cover hobbyist or recreational uses of small drones, which have arguably accounted for the majority of the approximately 1,500 reported drone sightings and encounters with aircraft since 2014. It doesn’t address privacy or surveillance issues, though the FAA says it’s working on these issues, and encourages drone operators to check local and state laws. And it doesn’t deal with larger UAVs.

In the immediate future, the FAA must develop privacy and surveillance rules and foster air traffic regulations for drones. It should prioritize clarifying how it will enforce these new rules and developing anti-collision standards.

Even though it’s late—the FAA missed its original, September 2015 deadline—the rule could have substantial impact. The FAA anticipates it “could generate more than $82 billion for the US economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.”

To date, commercial development in the United States, especially among small- and medium-sized enterprises, has been hindered by haphazard FAA rules and regulations and unclear export controls. The FAA’s delay in providing direction, rules, and regulations to assist the development of this technology has left the American drone industry outpaced by competitors in Europe and around the world.

China, for example, has allowed delivery of packages by drones for years. DJI, a Chinese company, has about 70 percent of the market for consumer UAVs, according to the Teal Group. Meanwhile, US industries have resorted to looking for research and development opportunities outside of the United States. In 2014, Amazon threatened to take testing of its drone delivery systems to foreign shores, until it was granted an exemption by the FAA.

This FAA rule is an important step toward progress, but more work remains to be done to ensure that the United States establishes comprehensive and clearly defined rules and regulations for all aspects of commercial drone use.

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The Feds Just Put the US Back in the Global Drone Race