Bill That Exempts Small Consumer Drones From FAA Regulations Moves Forward

Any drone under 4.4 pounds would be legal to fly for almost any purpose.

A piece of legislation that would exempt small drones from almost all upcoming Federal Aviation Administration regulations has been attached to an FAA funding bill in Congress, a version of which must pass before the end of March.

The "Micro UAS" or "Micro Drone" amendment has been added to the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Authorization (AIRR) Act, a bill that funds the FAA and must be passed by March 31 in order to keep the agency that oversees all aviation in the country functioning as normal.

The rule would exempt drones under 4.4 pounds from upcoming FAA commercial drone regulations, meaning anyone could fly a drone for any purpose, so long as it's under the weight limit. The drones would still have to be operated under 400 feet, at speeds of less than 46 MPH, within line of sight of the operator, during daylight, and at least 5 miles away from any airport.

The "micro UAS" distinction would subdivide the FAA's "small UAS" distinction, which encompasses all drones between 0 and 55 pounds. Most small hobby drones weigh less than 4.4 pounds.

Drone lawyer Brendan Schulman, who is vice president of policy and legal affairs at the drone maker DJI, published research at the end of 2014 that strongly advocated for such a distinction. At the time, Schulman was the country's best-known drone lawyer, having taken on the FAA in several high profile cases at the Kramer Levin law firm. That work, as well as his drone advocacy work, landed him a job as the top lawyer for the world's largest consumer drone company.

His paper suggested that drone-plane collisions would be less common than plane-bird strikes—and perhaps no more dangerous for the plane.

"Simplifying the regulations for drones below two kilograms would empower people to use drones as tools to help each other, their communities and their small businesses," Schulman wrote in an op-ed for The Hill earlier this week. "A simple and accessible regulatory category will spur manufacturers to implement the best features into the smallest products that inherently pose the lowest risks. Incentivizing operators to use micro systems would immediately make the national airspace safer."

The amendment passed during a markup of the AIRR Act Thursday. The Micro Drone Rule isn't a law yet, and the AIRR Act does have some hurdles before it's ultimately passed. Most controversially, the AIRR Act proposes that responsibility for air traffic control be taken from the FAA and given to a newly established nonprofit corporation. That's a radical and controversial proposal that seems unlikely to pass. For that reason, you might be hearing quite a bit about the AIRR Act over the next month as Congress seeks some sort of compromise.

In any case, some form of the bill will have to pass eventually, and the Micro UAS rule was approved with little discussion or controversy by the House of Representatives' Transportation Committee. After years of slogging through FAA-driven drone regulations, it seems Congress may act to make sweeping changes to the current regulatory scheme.