A lot more drones the size of full-grown poodles will soon be zooming over rooftops, thanks to new federal regulations.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s new rule, officially deemed “Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” sets safety and security guidelines for certifying and operating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) weighing less than 55 pounds. Under the new framework, UAS can carry out various functions, including those that help agriculture and academia, among other sectors.

The new rules “will enable the safe expansion of a new generation of aviation technologies that will create jobs, enhance public safety, and advance scientific inquiry,” the Obama Administration said in a statement.

Prior to releasing its final rules, the FAA issued thousands of exemptions to allow already-operating UAS to continue their ventures. The FAA also chose six diverse UAS research and test sites across the country to determine how best to integrate UAS into the national airspace system and evaluate new UAS technologies before releasing its new rules.

These new rules are the result of a requirement in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Following the Act, the FAA released a comprehensive plan of its new rules in November 2013. The finalized rules, released on 21 June 2016, incorporate comments from various sectors and organizations, cited throughout the text.


To pilot a UAS, people must pass a written knowledge test and be vetted through the same security screening as traditional manned-aircraft pilots. Generally, UAS cannot fly over people, must stay at least five miles from airports, fly lower than 400 feet, and always be in sight of the pilot.


Federal agencies, like the Departments of Defense, Transportation, and the Interior, have existing UAS privacy policies that the FAA’s new rule supports. In addition to these privacy policies, the Obama Administration is launching a public education campaign on privacy and issuing a call for commitments to protect privacy. For instance, to prevent collecting sensitive data, a drone manufacturer created a new tool that allows pilots to create a map of where they want to fly and prevents them from capturing images anywhere outside that map.


Under the new rules, scientists and engineers can use UAS to more closely monitor natural resources, wildlands, and waterways, the Administration said. The FAA is also partnering with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to collaborate on new initiatives to respond to disasters and manage the environment.

The Department of the Interior, which manages one-fifth of all land in the U.S., has been using UAS since 2009 to survey areas for wildlife and vegetation, protect endangered species, carry out archaeological studies, and coordinate emergency responses, among other endeavors. DOI plans to make drones that have high-definition remote sensing available to all its bureaus by 2018.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also has a history of using drones, starting in 2008, to improve and enhance weather, climate, and coastal and oceanic observations. NOAA plans to incorporate UAS into its routine operations by 2019 so that it can provide timely photos of storm damage, river flood conditions, and marine wildlife and ecosystem environments, among other sights.

Academic institutions can also expand their drone deployment under the new rules. An uncertified person – likely a student – can pilot the drone for educational purposes as long as he or she is directly supervised by someone certified. Academic institutions can also require a certain number of students to obtain pilot certificates before joining a class that will incorporate small UAS. Any distinctions between private and public universities have been eliminated under the new rules – private universities can now also fly UAS. The FAA’s new rules also make it easier for academics to add non-inhibitive cameras and scientific instruments to their drones.

Micro UAS – commonly used in academia and weighing less than 55 pounds – will have their own framework of rules expected to be released in the near future.

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow