September 12, 2017

Ready for Takeoff? How to Launch Your Commercial Drone

As recently highlighted in the Wall Street Journal, drones are playing a role in relief efforts for disasters like Hurricane Harvey. They have been used to assess property damage in hard-to-reach locations, search for missing persons and inspect the condition of various entities, ranging from public roads to power lines to oil refineries and water plants. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) heavily regulates drone applications and authorizations, though some exemptions occasionally apply for special circumstances like Hurricane Harvey.

Outside of these special circumstances, here is how companies can get their commercial drones ready for takeoff:

Certain FAA regulations govern commercial drone use — in particular, Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulation Part 107 (let’s just call it “Part 107”). Part 107 governs everything from clearance requirements to what requirements can and cannot be waived. To get your drone up and running, your company needs to:
•    License your pilot
•    Register the drone with the FAA
•    Get the drone authorized
•    Verify that you’re not infringing

Let’s take each of those in turn.  

License Your Pilot

Your company needs a person to fly the drone, and that person needs to be licensed. Part 107 requires a pilot to have a “remote pilot airman certification” or “be under the direct supervision” of a person who is certified. To be certified a potential pilot must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test (at any FAA-approved knowledge testing center, the FAA Unmanned Aircraft General—Small (UAG) Knowledge Test), pass a TSA check and be over 16 years old.

Register the Drone With the FAA

Registering a drone with the FAA can be done on the FAA website by registering a username, creating a company profile, submitting information about the drone and paying a small fee. The registration process is fairly straightforward and quick to complete online, though paper copies are available too.  

In most cases, drones do not need an airworthiness certificate (an FAA document granting authorization to operate an aircraft in flight), but preflight checks are required. This includes evaluating the environment and considering the risks to persons or property by assessing the weather, airspace restrictions, locations of persons and property, and “other ground hazards.” The pilot also must inform those participating in the flight of the operating conditions, emergency procedures, contingency procedures, roles and responsibilities. Essentially the requirements are to make sure your company will maintain control and conduct activities safely. The full requirements are found in Part 107.49.

Get the Drone Authorized

Your company must contemplate the drone’s intended use — then you’ll then be able to figure out how to get it authorized to fly.

Ask yourself these questions:
•    In what area will the drone fly?
•    How high will it fly?
•    Under what conditions will it fly?

Depending on the area and how high the drone will operate, you may need to apply for an airspace “authorization” or “waiver.” Flying at night?  That requires a waiver, which you obtain through the same application process. Flying over people will too. Flying in “controlled airspace” will require an authorization or waiver.

An authorization is short term (lasting up to six months) and grants access to a more limited operating area. A waiver is longer term (six months to two years) and grants access to a larger operating area. The more limited “authorization” will most likely take less time to obtain than a larger, longer “waiver.”

Verify That You’re Not Infringing

If your company builds its own drone, beware of patent applications filed on drone technology. Consider a search or freedom-to-operate analysis to evaluate patents and ensure you won’t be risking patent infringement. If your company wants to patent its drone for commercial use, consider filing a patent application so you can use the phrase “patent pending” on your product and marketing materials.

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