On December 28, 2020, the FAA released new final rules for certain uses of Unmanned Aerial Systems, (UAS, or drones), the result of a multi-year undertaking. These new rules build upon previous rulemakings which expanded UAS operations to allow for commercial use and eased restrictions for those operators, along with creating the small-UAS (less than 55 lbs) and micro-UAS (4.4. lbs or less) categories of vehicles. The new regulations do several things: 1) they require remote identification technology for UAS; 2) they expand UAS commercial operations to allow for over-crowd flights, creating different restrictions based on the category the UAS falls into (more below); and 3) they establish a system for allowing operators to conduct UAS flights at night.
Previously, the FAA had allowed commercial UAS flights only over people on the ground who were participants in the operation itself. Under the new regime, certain types of UAS will be able to fly over crowds regardless of their knowledge or participation in the operations; others will have more restricted abilities. To accomplish this, the FAA created new categories for UAS:
Category 1: The only category based solely on weight. It is for UAS weighing .55 lbs or less. These UAS can fly over crowds regardless of if they are participating in the operation or not, as long as remote identification technology has been enabled.
Categories 2 - 4 are UAS that weigh more than .55 lbs and meet certain FAA safety standards, with the standards for Category 2 being highest, then Category 3, and finally Category 4. As the standards are lowered by category, the limitations on what those UAS can do are raised.
Category 2: Can fly over crowds, but not over open air assemblies.
Category 3: Can fly over people participating in the operation or within an enclosed/restricted space and the people within have been notified that a UAS may fly over them.
Category 4: Requires an "airworthiness certificate" from the FAA (Part 21), and is restricted to operations allowed according to it.
In addition, UAS Categories 1-3, if eligible to fly over people, can operate over moving vehicles when in transit (sustained flights over moving vehicles are prohibited).
The new rule also allows for commercial small-UAS (less than 55 lbs) flights at night. To fly at night, remote pilots must either complete an updated initial test or the updated recurrent online training prior to conducting a night operation. In addition, their small-UAS must be equipped with operational anti-collision lights that can be seen for 3 statute miles and have a flash rate sufficient to avoid a collision.
These updated rules expand the legal operational capabilities of commercial UAS and provide flexibility for operators who use them in their businesses, including real estate professionals. The FAA continues to work on regulations to allow for commercial UAS flights that go "beyond-visual-line-of-sight" (BVLOS). NAR will continue to work with the FAA to develop UAS regulations and advocate for common-sense rules which allow UAS to meet their full potential for real estate professionals while protecting the safety and privacy of people on the ground.
Read the new FAA regulations executive summary