In what’s surely the news of the year for the drone industry as a whole, the FAA has finalized new rules that will ease the restrictions on flying a UAV for commercial purposes. The official release of Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations means that flying a drone for commercial purposes will soon be a much easier and simpler process.

Part 107 is a game-changing development for individuals and organizations of all types and sizes, and there are already numerous resources which explore how Part 107 does and doesn’t change things, some of which have been put out by the FAA itself. Reading over the fine print associated with these sorts of announcements is always advisable, but even staying at a high level, there are quite a few things of importance to note about 107.

Rather than simply run through those on my own, I got in touch with Steve Hogan of Drone Law Today. Steve is a lawyer who has worked with commercial drone companies for years on their legal issues, and is also the host of an excellent podcast where he explores the fast-moving world of state and federal drone law with some of the biggest names in this space. He was kind enough to talk through a few of the most notable things about Part 107.


1Part 107 Changes Everything…But Not Until August


The FAA waited until the fourth paragraph of their release to mention that Part 107 will not take effect until late August, and it’s understandable to see why they first wanted to talk about a few other highlights first. This ruling provides the definition people have wanted for a long time now, and that’s probably why the reaction of the community as a whole has similarly downplayed this implementation delay. Having to continue to wait for things to actually change might not sit well with some, but this timetable is far more acceptable than the ones the FAA has previously given.

“Seeing 107 take effect in August is okay because we’ve been waiting for this rule since February of 2012,” Hogan said. “That’s when the President signed the FAA Modernization Reform Act of 2012. That’s the law that directed the FAA to go write the regs for the commercial use of drone technology in the national airspace system. There were deadlines within that law about when the FAA was supposed to have things done, and I think they missed every single one of those deadlines. It’s nice to finally have it done, so sixty days is nothing when you compare it to that. It’s definitely cause for celebration.”

Some might lament the fact that we’re still going to have to deal with a waiting period at all, but when you think about the fact that the FAA's Small UAS NPRM provisions came out in February of 2015, it’s clear things could be and have been far worse. Nonetheless, having a 333 is the only way you’ll be able to legally fly a drone for commercial purposes for the next couple months.


2The Elimination of the Traditional Pilot’s License Requirement is Just Part of the Picture


Over the past few years many different individuals and organizations have recognized the potential of drones. They saw UAVs as tools that could impact the way they conducted their business, but many cited the FAA’s requirement around having a traditional pilot’s license to operate a drone for commercial purposes as the reason they never fully invested time or money in the technology. Part 107 eliminates the need for operators to hold that pilot’s license, which is incredibly important, but that’s only one aspect of the rulings’ significance.

“It’s hard to pinpoint the most significant thing about 107,” Hogan mentioned. “I will say the elimination of the pilot’s license requirement isn’t a surprising thing because it’s always been in the works, at least since the NPRM. But I think the biggest thing is the more holistic point. Now all of the pent up entrepreneurial energy can go flooding into this industry. People can begin to take chances and start businesses without having to get a ‘golden ticket’, aka the 333, from the FAA. Now people can just focus on their business and flying safely, without having to worry about regulations that don’t seem to make sense. That’s a more holistic point, but it’s a bigger deal than any particular detail of 107.”

Not having to worry about filing, waiting and hopefully being approved for a 333 means that more people are going to be able to do more with their drones. Funding for various UAV platforms and businesses can now be unleashed. When companies like Precision Hawk raised 18 million dollars it was a big deal, but 107 opens up the industry to investments that could be far more significant. A stable regulatory space should enable more economic activity and job creation.


3The Impact on Different Markets Will be As Different as They are Significant


How professionals in precision agriculture use a drone can and is different from how search and rescue professionals use these tools, which means this ruling will have a very different impact across various industries. It would be simple enough to consider the potential impact on those industries, but the real changes we’re bound to see in them are likely to be as unpredictable as they are monumental.

“The only limit on what you can do with these tools, and the businesses you can grow with them, is entrepreneurial imagination when applied to a specific application, regardless of the industry,” Hogan explained. “I think we’re going see applications that no one has ever thought of. Fifteen years ago, did anyone think we’d be walking around with a supercomputer that could instantly guide you to the nearest coffee shop? It’s going to be fun to watch and be part of how people can take advantage of these capabilities in a specific industry like agriculture or real estate, because it’s all going to be about taking the capabilities of this technology and thinking through creative uses for it.”

For the past few years, regulation prevented many professionals from experimenting with a drone. With those limitations removed under 107, farming, construction and plenty other professionals will be able to explore what makes sense for the business with a UAV, which will in turn guide how the technology develops for those specific markets.


4107 Puts the Industry in a Great Position


The elimination of needing to have a pilot’s license along with the requirement of having a visual observer during operation removes significant barriers to entry that many had seen and felt. However, 107 does not allow operators to fly over non-participants, fly beyond visual line of sight or operate at night. We’ve taken a big step forward with 107, but how far do we still have to go?

“It’s going to be a process of working things out and thinking about how the rules as they are can be tweaked, pushed, moved and amended to make them better,” Hogan said. “But I think what we’ve got is a heck of an awesome start. You can get going with a lot under the construct of 107 as it’s written. This is like Kitty Hawk. No one envisioned 747s when Wilbur and Orville Wright went 120 feet before they crashed. That was the beginning of a beginning, and so is this.”

It might be easy to get caught up in all the things that are not contained in 107, and those limitations will no doubt severely restrict how certain people want to operate a UAV. Nonetheless, there will be numerous opportunities created by 107, and those should be the focus and priority, at least in the short term.


5Limitations Exist, but so do Solutions

Even for those who can’t help but worry and be concerned about all the things that 107 doesn’t cover or still restricts, there’s hope. The ruling mentions that the FAA will be offering a process to waive some restrictions if an operator proves the proposed flight will be conducted safely. Exactly what that looks like remains to be seen, but it sounds like it will be simpler than the 333 process. But even making that comparison is proof of how far things have come in such a short time.

“It will be interesting to see what happens with the waiver process, but remember, we have a feeling in our minds about what having a Section 333 means,” Hogan continued. “It wasn’t created by Congress as the thing it is today though. All the term means is that it’s referencing section 333 of the FAA Modernization Reform Act. And what does that say? It says the FAA has the ability to determine certain operations are “safe”, even though they might not have a regulation in place that says it is safe. So whether it’s the traditional 333 process or the FAA using the authority in a different way, it’s still about them giving approval for certain operations on a case by case basis because they determine they’re safe.”

Hearing Hogan refer to the 333 process as “traditional” got us both to realize just how quickly things have and continue to change in this space. He mentioned that during an interview with Chris Proudlove on his podcast, the two discussed how a month of drone law was practically the equivalent of a year in any other industry. It’s proof of how important it is to stay current and informed with limitations like these, as legal workarounds will continue to be defined and introduced.


6Safety First and Foremost

With lines like, You are responsible for ensuring a drone is safe before flying, but the FAA does not require small UAS to comply with current agency airworthiness standards or obtain aircraft certification in their official press release, it felt like the FAA was shifting the focus on safety to the operators. However, that focus has always been there, which is exactly where it needs to be.

“The onus of safety has always been on the operator,” Hogan explained. “It’s the job of the pilot, whether it’s a manned aircraft or an unmanned aircraft system, to make sure the thing in the air is safe. If you’re a pilot getting ready to take off, regardless of what you’re taking into the air, it’s your job to make sure that that thing is airworthy and safe. If anything is wrong or not safe, then you better not take off. The airspace has to be safe, and it’s the job of pilots, working with the regulators, to make sure that’s the case.”

With the paperwork and process associated with 333’s, it often felt like the FAA was using that to make someone prove they could and would be safe when flying their drone. Of course, paperwork and process aren’t what actually makes anyone safe. The skies need to be respected, and the expectation of that extends from 107 to 333’s to an unspoken and clearly defined understanding around safety that pilots have always had and lived by.


107Will Not Solve or End the Legal Implications of Flying a Drone


While Part 107 might feel like it’s going to solve everything for the folks who don’t need to worry about issues like nighttime flying or operating BVLOS, that isn’t exactly the case. We’ve already seen a number of states and municipalities pass or try to pass laws which restrict how or where people can fly their UAV. Luckily, the interplay between state and federal regulations is the exact thing that Hogan has been focusing on in his practice.

“This is my favorite topic,” Hogan concluded. “The state level regulation of industries is what our law firm does. It’s always been our position that you’re going to have an interaction between federal and state law in this emerging industry, and how they were going to interact was unclear. So the federal regulations about what is a safe flight come into conflict with state law, which includes things like privacy issues and tort law. It already is and will continue to be the story of the next chapter of drone regulation in this country.”

The most important thing to note here is that the FAA will continue to regulate what a safe flight is, but the states regulate what you can do during an otherwise safe flight. That means you can do everything right according to the FAA, but the state can still outlaw a drone-based business. These sort of legal nuances are just beginning to be defined, but as Hogan said, will undoubtedly have a major impact on what the next few months and years look like for the industry.