Two years since the FAA rules for commercial drone operations took effect, the technology has proved to be every bit as disruptive and productive as visionaries believed it would across a number of industries, yet tension persists between demands for safety and demands to do more with unmanned aircraft.
Drones are finding lost children and fugitives from justice, delivering floatation devices to struggling swimmers and medical supplies to remote medical clinics abroad, and, in the context of a federal pilot program, in North Carolina. Once primarily a tool for photographers and videographers, unmanned aircraft have become Swiss Army knives in the sky, capable of carrying a dizzying array of tools with new missions being dreamed up by the day.
Industry insiders have expressed some frustration over the pace of regulatory change. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International recently published its analysis of Part 107 waivers granted to date, marking the two-year anniversary of Part 107 implementation with a headline that nearly 2,000 waivers of those rules have been granted to date.
Defining “progress” is often a matter of perspective. The vast majority of Part 107 waiver requests have been declined, according to data provided by the FAA: The agency has received 11,929 requests to waive one or more Part 107 provisions since the rules took effect, and granted 1,842 (as of Aug. 15), an approval rate of 15.4 percent. That includes 4,781 requests submitted since Jan. 1, and the approval rate for 2018 has slipped to 11.9 percent.
The overwhelming majority of approved waivers allow night operations, where the safety case is comparatively simple to make: bright lights and trained observers are, generally speaking, deemed sufficient. On the other hand, flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) have rarely been approved (only 1.14 percent of the 2,194 applications to waive 107.31 had been approved through Aug. 15, according to the FAA). None of the 581 applications for a waiver to operate a drone near aircraft without yielding right of way have been approved.
AOPA Senior Director of Government Affairs for Airspace, Air Traffic, and Aviation Security Rune Duke said few AOPA members are among those complaining about the FAA’s reticence to approve drone missions that push beyond the limits of Part 107.
“It’s been a while since I’ve personally gotten a phone call from a pilot,” Duke said. “It has not been a problem with our membership. The FAA has received a number of letters and inquiries regarding the timeliness of UAS waiver approvals but they are working to improve that aspect.”
Duke said that in virtually every case he’s looked into, the complaining applicant failed to provide a complete application that states a strong safety case.
“A lot of requests are denied because there’s just not enough information to make a determination as to equivalent level of safety,” Duke said. “The FAA is doing a fantastic job of vetting these requests, ensuring there are equivalent levels of safety, and doing the due diligence.”
Duke also praised the FAA’s efforts to educate the Part 107 remote pilot community, including a series of webinars launched by the agency this summer that cover in detail how a successful application is prepared. The agency has also updated its website to streamline the application process and provided detailed instructions that spell out exactly what information an applicant must provide, including how to explain how a given operation will be conducted with an equivalent level of safety.
“So far, the waiver process seems to be working,” Duke said, noting that a growing number of facilities are now equipped to allow automated authorization of drone flights in controlled airspace.
Aviation safety is not the only issue causing tension. In Denver, police recently shelved their new drone program amid pushback over privacy and legal concerns, The Denver Post reported. Firefighters in that same city are on the cusp of joining hundreds of public safety agencies across the country that have made drones a tool used almost daily.
Reluctance to unleash drones is also related to concerns over security and the potential use of the technology by terrorists and criminals. The president of Venezuela recently survived an assassination attempt involving drones carrying explosives, and many of the first successful drone deliveries have involved dropping contraband inside prison walls. Even the most enthusiastic industry advocates concede that technology to identify and track drones is a key prerequisite to adopting a more permissive attitude.