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Alerts and Updates

FAA Issues Two Key Changes to Drone Regulations, Opening Door to Commercial Use

January 5, 2021

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The FAA has further opened the door to use of long-distance drone flights as part of a critical link in logistics and supply chains across the country.

On December 28, 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced two major changes to existing federal regulations governing the flight of Unmanned Aircraft (UA), better known as drones. These changes represent the latest in the FAA’s ongoing efforts to integrate drones into the existing National Airspace System, and, in turn, facilitate the implementation of drones in commercial settings. The new rules will become effective 60 days from the date of their publication in the Federal Register, which is anticipated to occur in January 2021.

The first of these two changes, codified at Part 89 in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, has been dubbed the “Remote ID rule” and establishes requirements for drones “to provide certain identification, location, and performance information that people on ground and other airspace users can receive.” The Remote ID rule provides three methods for drone operators to comply with this “digital license plate” requirement: (1) operate a standard remote identification drone, which broadcasts identification, location and performance information; (2) operate a drone that has been fitted with a remote identification broadcast module to broadcast identification, location and performance information; and (3) operate a drone without any remote identification equipment, so long as that drone is operated within a specific FAA-recognized identification area.

The second change, which amends Part 107 in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, has been dubbed the “Operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Over People Rule.” In its current form, Part 107 prohibits the flight of drones at night through airspace over persons not directly involved in their operations absent the issuance of a special FAA waiver. Thus, the new rule does away with the waiver requirements and permits drone flights at night and/or over people, provided certain conditions are met. In order to operate at night, the remote pilot must complete a special testing protocol “to ensure familiarity with the risks and appropriate mitigations for nighttime operations,” and the drone must be equipped with sufficient anti-collision lighting, visible at no less than three statute miles. Similarly, the new rule prescribes four separate categories―relating to the specifications and operation―into which a drone must fall in order to operate over people. As a corollary, the rule also permits the operation of drones over motor vehicles and requires that drone operators maintain physical possession of their remote pilot certificates to present to authorities as needed.

With these small yet significant changes to existing drone regulations, the FAA moves closer to incorporating drones as a widespread, accepted and safely regulated part of the National Airspace System. Moreover, by reducing the limitations on how, when and where drones may be operated, the FAA has further opened the door to use of long-distance drone flights as part of a critical link in logistics and supply chains across the country.

For More Information

If you have any questions about this Alert, please contact Alyson Walker Lotman, Matthew Decker, any of the attorneys in our Transportation, Automotive and Logistics Industry Group or the attorney in the firm with whom you are in regular contact.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.