At yesterday’s Transportation Research Board meeting, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao unveiled three FAA initiatives designed to further integrate drone operations into the National Airspace System (NAS). Chao said drones “are well on their way to mainstream deployment” and as of December 14, 2018 the FAA had registered 1.3 million and more than 116,000 operators.
The first was an FAA draft notice of proposed rulemaking (draft NPRM) to allow drone flights over people and at night without first obtaining a formal waiver as a possible modification to Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). The second was an FAA-proposed Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) dealing with drone safety and security issues including the possibility of instituting mandatory standoff distances between persons and buildings for drone operations. And the third involved the award of additional contracts for Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) research.
Under the proposed NPRM abolishing the waiver requirements, operators would be required to hold a Part 107 remote operators certificate and undergo recurrent training every 24 months. The draft NPRM would also establish different categories of drones that qualify for waiver exemption based on weight classes from 0.55 pounds to their ability to transfer up to 25 foot-pounds of kinetic energy from rigid object and associated impact risks, laying the groundwork for possible FAA airworthiness certification or an equivalent process for these aircraft.
Through the end of 2017, the FAA had received applications for 4,837 night waivers and granted 1,233; and the agency notes that night flying is the most common type of UAS waiver request. It notes that waiver requests are generally rejected for lack of information, that safe operations rely on an anti-collision light and operator knowledge, and that future, routine, safe night operations would rely on knowledge testing and/or training with regard to night operations and an anti-collision light that would be visible for at least three statute miles.
Flights over people would be allowed effective immediately, provided the operator holds a Part 107 certificate and the aircraft falls into one of three categories: Category 1, total aircraft weight of 0.55 pounds or less; Category 2, the manufacturer demonstrates that if the aircraft crashes into a person it yields injury below an established threshold (below the transfer of 11 foot-pounds of kinetic energy from a rigid object); and Category 3, demonstrated injuries below those induced by the transfer of up to 25 pounds of kinetic energy from a rigid object. Additionally, aircraft could not have rotating parts or blades that could lacerate human skin and could not be operated with an “FAA-identified safety defect” such as exposed wires, hot surfaces, sharp edges, faulty construction, or corrupted software. Because of their assumed increased size, Category 3 aircraft would be barred for operating over open-air assemblies, operations must be over or within a closed access site, people within the site must be notified of a potential UAS flyover, and UAS may transit but may not hover within these sites.
The FAA also noted in the ANPRM that it was considering future safety and security rulemaking with regard to UAS operations and would examine questions and comments related to performance and further operating limitations. Chao said DOT “is keenly aware that there are legitimate public concerns about drones, concerning safety, security, and privacy. Recent events overseas have underscored concerns about the potential for drones to disrupt aviation and the national airspace.”
Finally, the FAA announced participants in its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management System Pilot Project that will run through September 2019. The project is designed to demonstrate a traffic management system that safely integrates drones into the NAS. The participants are the Nevada UAS Test Site Smart Silver State; Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site; and Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.