With hopes of commercializing the use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), popularly known as drones, various types of small businesses are welcoming the release of preliminary FAA guidelines related to the commercial use of drones, while others are calling the guidelines too restrictive.

The preliminary guidelines will go through a period of review and comments and could take up to a year to approve in a final form. The guidelines cover drones that weigh less than 55 lbs., a class of drones called “small UAS.” An even smaller class of drones weighing less than 4.4 lbs. (2 kg) are called “microUAS” and will be covered by other guidelines expected later this year. (Note: The proposed guidelines cover commercial use of drones and do not apply to recreational use of drones used by hobbyists. Such non-commercial use is already covered by other rules.)

One well-publicized (including on SmallBusiness.com) use of drones seems to suffer a setback in the proposed guidelines: The kind of drone delivery services being explored by Amazon and Google. Those services, guided remotely utilizing GPS, robotics and other technology, don’t appear to comply with requirements that operators or assigned observers be able to see the drone at all times without binoculars.

Another guideline generating complaints from some in the nascent UAS industry involves restrictions against flying drones over people. Such a restriction seems to prevent use of drones by videographers, for example.

However, Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine and now the CEO of U.S. drone maker 3D Robotics Inc., praised the guidelines despite such complaints by others. He told WSJ.com that the rules will enable the vast majority of commercial drone flights that are technically possible today.


Not requiring full pilots licenses, aircraft certifications “and other things that would have been barriers to innovation is what encourages me the most,” he said. “The little, tiny things like no nighttime flying and not flying over people all strike me as things that can be discussed.” He added that regulations would finally lend legitimacy to the drone industry and lead to rapid expansion. “All I wanted was a sandbox where we could innovate,” he said. “Now we’ve got that sandbox and I think you’ll see an explosion of creativity and energy and investment in this space going forward.”

Highlights from the FAA guidelines

  • A small drone operator must always see and avoid manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the drone operator must be the first to maneuver away.
  • The small drone operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.
  • A small drone operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the drone.
  • A small drone may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.
  • Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph.
  • Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions.

Some areas of potential commercial use of unmanned aviation systems (UAS, or drones)

  • Agriculture
  • Search and Rescue
  • Aerial photography and video
  • Wildlife management
  • Security & Monitoring
  • Scientific and Environmental Research
  • Mapping
  • Real Estate Development
  • Communications

(Photo of Chris Anderson, 3D Robotics, by Christopher Michel via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

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