Draft revisions to FAA drone regulations released on Jan. 14 represent an incrementally more permissive approach to flying unmanned aircraft at night and over people, along with a shift from recurrent testing to online training that could save remote pilots millions of dollars, but none of this will happen before drones can be tracked and identified remotely.
Draft FAA documents including a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) and a separate advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) were posted online in the midst of an ongoing federal government shutdown, coinciding with a speech delivered by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting. Once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register (presumably, soon after the federal government returns to full operation), a 60-day comment period will begin.
Chao also announced the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management Pilot Program, a series of tests and demonstrations expected to take place this year involving participants in the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program that has been underway since 2017. Those projects, each a collaboration between government and industry teams conducting advanced operations of unmanned aircraft, will incorporate a traffic management system for testing and data collection.
Readers of the 206-page NPRM to replace current limits on unmanned aircraft flights over people and at night will find a proposed change that the FAA calculates could collectively save Part 107 remote pilots between $6 million and $29 million per year: The FAA calls for eliminating the requirement for a recurrent written knowledge test every two years following initial certification, which costs $150, and replacing that requirement with required recurrent online training, which the FAA may offer directly at no cost.
In comments filed in 2015 to the FAA’s Part 107 proposed rule, AOPA requested that the recurrent training be web-based. Jim Coon, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs, wrote, “This is a service that industry could provide and would result in a lower cost of compliance and more widespread access to recurrent training.”
Manned-aircraft pilots with a current flight review can opt to take a free online course for both initial and recurrent Part 107 certification, and the FAA does not propose to change that, though the training syllabus would expand to cover newly allowed operations.
The proposed new rules, subject to revision following public comments and further consideration, stand to become the first major changes to Part 107 since these regulations governing non-hobby drone flights took effect in 2016. The changes would eliminate the need to obtain a waiver to conduct flights at night, or over people, provided certain conditions were met. That includes pilot training, and, for flights over people, defined limits on the maximum kinetic energy of the drone flown over people.
The FAA also reiterated that each of the changes being contemplated hinges on establishing a capability for law enforcement and security agencies to remotely track and identify small unmanned aircraft.
In particular, the FAA is cognizant of the importance of various stakeholders to be able to identify small UAS to mitigate security concerns that operations may present,” the proposed rule states. “Because of the importance of this particular issue, the FAA plans to finalize its policy concerning remote identification of small UAS—by way of rulemaking, standards development, or other activities that other federal agencies may propose—prior to finalizing the proposed changes in this rule that would permit operations of small UAS over people and operations at night.”
The FAA in December issued a request for information seeking drone-tracking technology details and demonstrations; several firms have already begun testing systems, though no consensus has emerged on how to track drones in flight. Even the basic method—using cellular networks, radio signals broadcast by the unmanned aircraft, other electronic means such as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), or a combination of some or all of these—remains to be decided.
The FAA divided operations over people into three categories based on the size and maximum speed of the drone. In this case, “speed” means the combined horizontal and vertical velocity that could potentially be achieved after a failure in flight.
The FAA wrote in the proposed rule that the decision to define operational limits in terms of the drone’s total kinetic energy is based on research and assumptions about the probability of injury that were calculated in the course of that research.
The FAA proposes dividing flights-over-people limitations into three categories: Drones weighing 0.55 pounds (250 grams) or less (including all components) would be allowed to fly over people with no additional constraints given their small size and low probability of causing harm. Virtually all drones that meet this criteria would be described by most as “toys,” lacking automatic flight controls or mechanically stabilized cameras.
Category 2 and Category 3 operations would allow heavier drones to fly over people, but with a requirement to shield propellers (so as to prevent “exposed rotating parts”), and limit the maximum possible kinetic energy, calculated based on velocity and weight. Category 3 operations would allow higher kinetic energy limits but restrict drones from hovering over people, and require that the operator restrict access to the operations area to people who have been briefed on the operation.
In practical terms, the FAA’s proposed limits on kinetic energy (and resulting probability of injury) would require significant design changes to virtually any drone on the market today before it could be allowed to fly over people without a waiver.
Researchers (working on the FAA’s behalf) calculated that a DJI Phantom falling from a height of 50 feet would deliver 100 to 103 foot-pounds of energy, far above the FAA’s proposed limits of 11 foot-pounds (for Category 2 operations) and 25 foot-pounds (for Category 3).
While the FAA does not expressly require drone parachutes, leaving it up to drone manufacturers to find their own path to emergency deceleration, there are a limited number of ways to limit the kinetic energy of a failing drone. Perhaps airbags similar to those used on more than one Mars lander will be adapted for drones, but the FAA would require proof that they’d protect people from injury. Low-density materials also may help earn FAA approvals. Picture a flying pool noodle with caged propellers.
Individual pilots would be responsible for making sure they fly within the limits by ensuring the drone is properly marked, equipped, and configured, including hardware and software configured exactly as it was when approved for the category. Beyond that the FAA proposal places much of the burden for proving the safety case for flight over people on manufacturers. Whether they are huge multinational companies or individuals building drones from parts in a home workshop, the FAA will require every manufacturer seeking approval to fly a drone over people to demonstrate that the given aircraft meets the standards. That can become a complex undertaking, possibly involving computer modeling or extensive laboratory testing.
Flying at night will be simpler: The FAA proposes night-flying requirements that are consistent with the requirements included in the 2,174 daylight operation waivers granted through Dec. 21, including night-operation-specific training for the remote pilot in command and visual observer, and the use of a light that makes the drone visible to other aircraft from at least three statute miles away.
AOPA is still reviewing the draft rules, but Rune Duke, senior director of airspace, air traffic, and aviation security, noted this rule is a positive step forward.
“We are glad to see the FAA making progress on their risk-based approach to integrating drones into the airspace. We are supportive of streamlining the pathway for legitimate drone operations to take place safely and efficiently in these much-desired categories of flight over people and at night.” He did note that the FAA’s draft rules left important information out: “Additional details are still needed, however, as being able to quickly identify an operator and facilitate enforcement is still not fully addressed. We are planning to conduct a thorough review of the FAA’s proposal and submit comments once a formal comment period opens.”
The world’s leading seller of drones for hobby and commercial use, DJI, responded quickly to the proposed rule changes, welcoming the potential expansion of drone operations, though noting that the firm is “reviewing other elements” of the proposed rule, “including proposals designed to protect people from injury from drones flying overhead. The rules contemplate a performance-based standard for measuring safety, which allows manufacturers to develop creative ways to meet that standard.”
However, DJI noted, details of the proposed rule differ in some cases from the recommendations made by a panel of stakeholders (DJI among them) in 2016, “and compel further study by industry stakeholders.”
“We will review these proposed rules to evaluate how well they can be implemented in practice, and we intend to submit comments to help inform and support the agency’s work of ensuring that drones continue to reach their full beneficial potential,” said DJI Vice President of Policy and Legal Affairs Brendan Schulman in the news release.
The Academy of Model Aeronautics also had a statement ready on Jan. 14, though it essentially sidestepped the issues. AMA Executive Director Chad Budreau posted a statement online, noting that while commercial unmanned aircraft operations stand to expand, “For model aircraft hobbyists, however, we do not anticipate these rules will have a significant impact on our existing guidelines for safe and responsible operation.”
Budreau noted that AMA safety guidelines already address many of the safety considerations in the regulation. He also put in another pitch for consideration when it comes to remote identification and tracking requirements to come:
“We continue to ask for FAA collaboration in adopting remote identification requirements that reflect the operational use of UAS—model aircraft, under AMA’s safety programming, pose no new risk to the airspace, therefore the remote identification rules for model aircraft operations should be more flexible.”