By the end of this year, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration expects to release a long-delayed draft rule that will begin to establish the conditions under which individuals and companies can fly small, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for commercial purposes. But concerns over potential privacy infringements could postpone the release of a final “small UAS” regulation until well into 2016. Routine flights by larger UAS will follow when standards become available to properly equip them for collision avoidance and command and control from the ground.
As it stands, the FAA requires that private entities obtain a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category to operate UASs in civilian, unrestricted airspace. This allows them to conduct research and development of unmanned aircraft, perform market surveys of potential customers and train crew, but not to fly UASs commercially. Public entities, including the U.S. military services, require a certificate of authorization (COA) for operations they conduct outside restricted airspace.
Those limited choices are being relaxed somewhat as a result of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act which the U.S. Congress passed in 2012. In the case of public entities, the legislation directed the FAA to expedite the COA process and to enter into agreements with individual agencies to simplify their applications. The FAA extended the length of authorizations from 12 months to 24 months so that agencies do not have to reapply every year. Congress requires it to develop operational and certification standards for regular flights of public UAS no later than Dec. 31, 2015.
The legislation also directed the FAA to allow “government public safety” agencies to fly unmanned aircraft weighing 4.4 pounds or less, as long as the aircraft is flown within line of sight of the operator, less than 400 feet above the ground, during daylight conditions, within Class G uncontrolled airspace and five miles removed from an airport, heliport, seaplane base or spaceport.
For private entities, the way forward is more complicated. The 2012 act compels the FAA to designate permanent areas in remote Arctic airspace “where small unmanned aircraft may operate 24 hours per day for research and commercial purposes,” and to develop a process for approving their use.
Last July, the FAA relied on previous military acceptance of the Insitu ScanEagle and the AeroVironment Puma AE to grant them restricted-category type certification for commercial operations in the Arctic, complying with congressional direction. Energy company ConocoPhillips made the first FAA-approved commercial UAS flight on Sept. 12, 2013, when it launched a ScanEagle from a research vessel in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska. The company planned to resume flights this summer.
Commercial Ops Exemptions
Under another provision of the 2012 legislation, the FAA will allow commercial UAS operations by exemption to certification requirements. Section 333 of the act offers an exemption, entitled “Special Rules for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” stating that the Secretary of Transportation can determine “if certain unmanned aircraft systems may operate safely in the national airspace system” before the FAA completes the rulemakingprocess. Several companies had approached the agency with plans to file for exemptions under Section 333, Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, said in May. AIN understands that that one of those companies was motorsports manufacturer Yamaha, which is seeking to sell its 207-pound RMax crop-dusting helicopter in the U.S.
The FAA has authorized commercial operation of UAS in other ways. Lockheed Martin has teamed with agricultural sensor supplier FourthWing Sensors of Minnesota to lease several of its Indago quadcopters to farmers in that state, an application the FAA allowed in November 2013 letter, the company said. Indagos must be operated on farmers’ own property, for their personal use, and following Academy of Model Aeronautics guidelines.
But widespread, commercial operation of these craft still awaits the release of the small UAS rule, which will likely cover aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds. The FAA advises that a rulemaking process typically takes 18 months from soliciting comments to producing a final rule–and this one is expected to generate an avalanche of comments from civil liberties organizations, the media and other entities concerned about both privacy and free-speech issues raised by the use of UASs fitted with high-resolution cameras and other sensors.
The FAA originally formed an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) to help it develop a small UAS regulation in 2008, and the ARC delivered its recommendations in April 2009. In earlier pronouncements, FAA executives said they expected the agency to release a draft rule by December 2011. But the rule became mired during its vetting in the federal bureaucracy, either partly or wholly because of the privacy issue.
Meanwhile, standards organization RTCA, the U.S. counterpart of Eurocae, is developing equipment standards for “detect and avoid” capability and command and control of larger unmanned aircraft. This would enable them to fly safely through lower altitudes to Class A airspace above 18,000 feet, or transition to special use airspace for training purposes. RTCA’s goal is to produce minimum operational performance standards in July 2016.