The FAA’s New Rules For Commercial Unmanned Aircraft: Operating Near Airports

With the FAA’s new rules for small UAS effective August 29, 2016, I’ll periodically review common questions posed by aircraft owners and pilots about these new regulations found in Part 107.  Generally speaking, these FARs allow unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds to be operated for a commercial use by a “remote pilot in command” who holds an FAA issued “remote pilot certificate with small UAS rating."

“Do the rules allow unmanned aircraft to operate near airports?” was one of the first questions asked by a commercial pilot considering whether to obtain a remote pilot certificate to expand his aerial surveying business, which often required operating near airports.  The answer is yes, but with several conditions.          

For operations near airports in controlled airspace, FAR 107.41: “Operation in certain airspace” states that “No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft in Class B, Class C, or Class D airspace or within the lateral boundaries of the surface area of Class E airspace designated for an airport unless that person has prior authorization from ATC.”  

The FAA has noted that this rule provides ATC with the authority to determine whether an unmanned aircraft lacking equipment such as a radio, transponder, or ADS-B can safely operate in controlled airspace.  However, this rule does not include Class G airspace, home to the overwhelming majority of airports, heliports, and seaplane bases in the United States. 

Significantly, another new rule, FAR 107.43: “Operation in the vicinity of airports” applies to all airports, including those in Class G airspace.  This FAR mandates that “No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft in a manner that interferes with operations and traffic patterns at any airport, heliport, or seaplane base.”   

In its comments to the final rules, the FAA stated that it “does not consider it necessary to prohibit small UAS operations in the vicinity of an airport in uncontrolled airspace” due to the requirements of this rule, as well as other new rules requiring remote pilots to yield the right of way to all other aircraft (FAR 107.37) and to not operate in a careless or reckless manner (FAR 107.23). 

The FAA further commented that as a result of the obligations imposed by these rules, it “expects that most remote pilots will avoid operating in the vicinity of airports because their aircraft generally do not require airport infrastructure, and the concentration of other aircraft increases in the vicinity of airports.” 

It is important to remember that the new rules of Part 107 do not apply to UAS operated for hobby or recreational use, which typically must meet the requirements of a “model aircraft” as defined in section 336 of Public Law 112-95.  However, federal law and new regulations in Part 101 still apply to model aircraft.  For example, those flying such model aircraft within 5 miles of an airport are still required to provide prior notice to the airport's operator and control tower (when an ATC facility is located at the airport).

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Jared Allen

Mr. Allen is AOPA’s Legal Services Plan (LSP) senior staff attorney and is an instrument-rated private pilot. He provides initial consultations to pilots through the LSP when the FAA has contacted them about potential FAR violations. Jared has helped numerous pilots successfully navigate through compliance actions.

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