Commercial Drones: Are They Legal?

droneAnytime potentially significant technology becomes available, new laws must be enacted to ensure the rights, safety and security of all who live and work with and around said technology. Unmanned aircraft, or drones, are no exception. The hype that has built around the business potential offered by drones has hit a fever pitch, with business owners even trying out drones as vehicles for product delivery. Be warned, however, because the legal path has not yet been cleared for businesses to take advantage of this new technology, and you could end up in court.

No Consensus

The Federal Aviation Administration, along with federal, local and state courts, have been grappling with the issue of drones, but they haven’t yet reached a consensus. The courts have reversed more than one FAA decision, though the FAA still prohibits all drone use for commercial or business purposes, except when an industry or business is given an exemption, as was the case recently in the Los Angeles area. Given that exceptions are available, is it easy to get one? The answer is no.

Can You Get an Exception?

Currently, there are three paths to being granted an exception to using drones for your business. Until the FAA and the courts come to an understanding and agreement on the rules of airspace use, it’s best to follow one of these three methods to avoid confusion and the headache of dealing with the FAA.

  • The first option is to make your way around some of the federal aviation regulations (FARs). For example, there is a FAR that requires a registration certificate to be displayed. Since drones are unmanned, there won’t be anyone aboard to see the certificate.
  • Second, someone who operates in the private sector can apply for an SACE, or Special Airworthiness Certificate/Experimental. This certificate can be used to fly the unmanned aircraft for specific purposes (research, training), but only in a very specifically defined area that must be approved by the FAA.
    The SACE application is 20 pages long, and consists of questions about the flight characteristics and design of the drone. Rarely does the FAA grant a request, and most that are approved are subjugated to one of only six sites that were approved by the FAA for research into drone integration. There are exceptions, however, including larger drones that are allowed to be flown in Alaska for the purposes of gas and oil exploration.
  • Finally, the third path is to be granted a Certificate of Waiver and Authorization, or COWA. Formally, this process isn’t available to civilians, but only governmental groups (military, police). While the FAA has granted several hundred COWAs, they have been mainly for said governmental agencies.

As is obvious, getting approval from the FAA to use unmanned aircraft for your business is challenging. Unless you own a business that does wildlife research, training, or has ties to gas and oil, right now at least it’s probably best to keep your ideas to implement a drone into your business plans on the back burner. While the courts may back you in the end, following the FAA rules now will save you a lot of time and money.

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