Jumping on the new FAA certificate for UAV operators

For quite some time, non-recreational operators of unmanned ultralight vehicles (UAVs; a.k.a. drones) were in legal limbo with respect to FAA regulations, as commercial use of UAVs had not been anticipated by those regulations. By default, the FAA considered almost anything that flew (major exception: recreational ultralights) to be an aircraft subject to the same regulations as other aircraft, including licensing requirements, use of airspace, etc.

That finally changed on August 29, 2016 when the new Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 107 took effect. A key feature of the new regulations is that drone operators flying for other than recreational purpose require a “remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating” (UAS is an “unmanned aerial system”).  This certificate supplants the previous need for a case-by-case Certificate of Authorization from the FAA.

As an active private pilot, I was eligible to apply for the remote pilot certificate simply by taking a short online course and then passing a test.  With no other formal training and no costs involved, I jumped on the chance, and I am now (just a few days after the new regulations took effect) one of the very early recipients of this certificate at the University of Wisconsin.

Under the new regulations, which greatly simplify the requirements for operating UAVs, I am now looking forward to integrating UAVs into both meteorological research and instruction here at the UW and am even planning a future sabbatical around this new technology. In particular, I plan to explore the use of both fixed wing and rotor-type UAVs to carry meteorological sensors and thermal imagers in studies of frost damage threats in complex terrain as well as surface-atmosphere exchanges of energy, moisture, and carbon dioxide in collaboration with Prof. Desai. 

I am particularly interested in fixed-wing UAVs with larger payload capacities, so that the options for locally prototyped multisensor payloads will be less constrained by weight.  The Penguin BE is a well-proven and very capable example of such a system – albeit a rather pricey one. 

I would prefer a slower-flying platform for various reasons (e.g., flying sonic anemometers), but so far I haven’t found any commercial models that have both large payload and low cruise speed.  Maybe there is room for some R&D on that issue here at UW-Madison?

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