Long-awaited FAA rules clear commercial drones for takeoff

The Robot Report
commercial drones

Commercial drones could become more commonplace under the FAA’s new regulations.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued two new rules for U.S. drone operators, a potential significant step forward for the commercial drone industry. The FAA will allow small drones to operate at night and over people and will require remote identification of the drones.

Remote ID will be required for all drones weighing 0.55 lb (0.25 kg) or more. It will also be required for smaller drones under certain circumstances. Remote ID essentially works as a digital license plate, broadcasting identifying details such as the drone’s location. The FAA said this will in part help reduce the risk of drone interference with other aircraft.

In 2022, the FAA will require every new mass-produced drone weighing over 0.55 pounds to broadcast its location. In 2023, it will be illegal to fly your drone without this broadcasting capability. And it doesn’t appear older drones will be grandfathered into the previous way of business. You can read the full text of the Remote ID rule here (PDF), but there are three ways in which drone operators can comply:

  • 1. Operate a standard Remote ID drone that broadcasts identification and location information of the drone and control station
  • 2. Operate a drone with a Remote ID broadcast module (may be a separate device attached to the drone), which broadcasts identification, location, and take-off information
  • 3. Operate a drone without Remote ID but at specific FAA-recognized identification areas; note these areas have yet to be identified.

According to the FAA, there are more than 1.7 million registered drones in the U.S., along with about 203,000 certifications for drone pilots. So while these regulations are already angering some drone hobbyists, they’re a necessary improvement of the current system, which simply requires operators to slap a sticker on their drone that nobody can see while it’s flying. This new approach will give law enforcement, should they need it, some idea of what’s going on in the skies.

Related: Inside Oklahoma’s burgeoning drone ecosystem

“The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said. “They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages.”

What is not in the rule is a requirement for network-based Remote ID.

“In response to the NPRM, the FAA received significant feedback about the network requirement identifying both public opposition to, and technical challenges with, implementing the network requirements,” the FAA said in the final rule. “The FAA had not foreseen or accounted for many of these challenges when it proposed using the network solution and USS framework. After careful consideration of these challenges, informed by public comment, the FAA decided to eliminate the requirement in this rulemaking to transmit remote identification messages through an Internet connection to a Remote ID USS.”

Flying at night and over people

The second new rule, Operations Over People and at Night (PDF), provides new flexibility to fly at night, over people and over moving vehicles for drone operators who have an FAA Part 107 permit. To fly at night, drones under 55 lbs must have anti-collision lights and no rotating parts that could lacerate skin. Flying over people depends on how dangerous your drone is in terms of weight and sharp propeller blades. The FAA has developed four categories of drones:

Category 1 eligible small unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 0.55 lb, including everything on board or otherwise attached, and contain no exposed rotating parts that would lacerate human skin. No FAA-accepted Means of Compliance (MOC) or Declaration of Compliance (DOC) required.

Category 2 eligible small unmanned aircraft must not cause injury to a human being that is equivalent to or greater than the severity of injury caused by a transfer of 11 foot-pounds of kinetic energy upon impact from a rigid object, does not contain any exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin upon impact with a human being, and does not contain any safety defects. Requires FAA-accepted means of compliance and FAA-accepted declaration of compliance.

Category 3 eligible small unmanned aircraft must not cause injury to a human being that is equivalent to or greater than the severity of injury caused by a transfer of 25 foot-pounds of kinetic energy upon impact from a rigid object, does not contain any exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin upon impact with a human being, and does not contain any safety defects. Requires FAA-accepted means of compliance and FAA-accepted declaration of compliance.

Category 4 eligible small unmanned aircraft must have an airworthiness certificate issued under Part 21 of FAA regulations. Must be operated in accordance with the operating limitations specified in the approved Flight Manual or as otherwise specified by the Administrator. The operating limitations must not prohibit operations over human beings. Must have maintenance, preventive maintenance, alterations, or inspections performed in accordance with specific requirements in the final rule.

Category 1 or Category 2 drones can’t be flown over people unless they have a Remote ID transmitter. Category 3 drones can’t be flown over “open-air assemblies of human beings,” only private areas where people are either under covered structures or have been warned a drone will be flying over.

Related: Stop claiming drones can do everything

“These final rules carefully address safety, security and privacy concerns while advancing opportunities for innovation and utilization of drone technology,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao.

Amazon and UPS have both received FAA approval for limited drone deliveries. These new rules are seen as a positive for them and other companies looking to commercialize drone deliveries.

Industry reaction

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI, said the FAA’s new rules are welcome progress. “Remote ID will enable more complex UAS operations, which will have additional untold benefits for American society,” said AUVSI President and CEO Brian Wynne. “Operations over people, and at night, are important steps towards enabling integration of drones into our national airspace. We look forward to reviewing these rules and working with the FAA on implementation.”

“While the implementation of remote identification technology may appear somewhat daunting for UAS program managers and operators who have already invested substantial budget towards building out their drone fleets, the finalization of the Remote ID and Operations Over People rules truly represent a significant milestone that ought to be celebrated by UAS professionals seeking to establish the safest possible ecosystem for unmanned aviation operations in the National Airspace System,” said Christopher Todd, Executive Director, Airborne International Response Team (AIRT), the leading 501(c)3 non-profit organization supporting Drones For Good.

Dawn Zoldi, CEO of P3 Consulting, said allowing drones to operate over moving vehicles is a major step in the right direction. “The big news is this rule allows operations over moving vehicles and the humans inside—but think beyond cars and trucks as the meaning of the term per the FAA also includes vehicles such as rollercoasters, bicycles and jet skis.”

“There will be lots of attention this week on the new Remote ID and Over-People rules, but the seemingly less-noticed Night Operations rule is how drones will save lives,” tweeted DJI’s VP of Policy and Legal Affairs Brendan Schulman. “Many of the 524 rescues on our interactive map are from operations at night.”

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