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A Closer Look at the FAA’s Proposed Drone Rules

Earlier this year the FAA announced a range of new proposals that will, should they come into effect, drastically change the type of drone operations that are possible for Part 107 pilots and the way those operations are undertaken.

The FAA announced both a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) and an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM).

The deadline has now passed for public comments. Hopefully you have already taken a look through and submitted your opinion on the proposals. In case the whole process passed you by, here’s a quick guide to what you can expect from these rule changes in the coming months.

What to expect from the NPRM proposals

Despite the government shutdown at the turn of the year, the FAA, the Office of the Secretary of Transportation (OST) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) came together to announce the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

The former (NPRM) covers the type of operations Part 107 pilots are allowed to fly, specifically suggesting new rules for flights at night and over people.

The main thing you need to know is that, should the new proposals come into effect, Part 107 operations at night and over people will be allowed under certain conditions. You will no longer have to seek a waiver for these operations should you meet the final criteria.

As we mentioned in a previous post, it’s an exciting step that could clear the way for continued innovation and a host of positive drone applications. Over 1,200 waivers for night operations have been issued to date without a single accident or incident reported. We anticipate that a range of operations across media, inspections and public safety could flourish under the proposed rules.

But the ‘certain conditions’ criteria is worth taking note of. The FAA has suggested that Part 107 missions will be able to fly at night as long as proper anti-collision lighting is used and the pilot in question has had night flight training. We will have to wait until the public consultation results are out before we know more about what that training will consist of.

Simple enough so far. But things get a little more complicated when we look at what the NPRM has to say about flights over people. The draft proposal puts forward a framework that’s made up of three categories:

The rule change would allow Part 107 pilots to fly over people, providing the drone in question either:

Category 1: weighs 0.55 pounds or less.

Category 2: weighs more than 0.55 pounds, providing the manufacturer in question has demonstrated that, in the result of a crash into a person, the drone causes injury below an established threshold: the transfer of 11 foot-pounds of kinetic energy upon impact. Drones in Category 2 will also have to operate with prop covers.

Category 3: weighs more than .55 pounds but has a maximum kinetic energy upon impact of 25 foot-pounds. Drones in this category will not be permitted to fly above open-air groups of people. They can only fly over people if the following three conditions is met:

First, the proposal would prohibit operations over any open-air assembly of people. Second, the operations would have to be within or over a closed/restricted-access site and anyone within that site would have to be notified that a small unmanned aircraft may fly over them. Third, for operations not within or over a closed/restricted-access site, the small unmanned aircraft may transit but not hover over people

One final thing to note is that flying a drone over moving vehicles will not be allowed for any of the three categories.

The Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM)

So that’s the NPRM covered. What about the ANPRM? Well, the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking takes a broader view at a range of topics that will impact drone use in the future.

These policy areas include UTM, stand-off distances and operational restrictions. It also raises the question of whether there should be design requirements placed on manufacturers, such as built-in redundancy systems.

There are plenty of topics that fall under the bracket of Safe and Secure Operations of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. You can read though all the proposals and suggestions here.

We’ve picked out a few of the most interesting and potentially impactful proposals.

First is the issue of stand-off distances. This is not an element of Part 107 flights currently but the FAA is aware that other aviation bodies around the world are putting them in place for certain operations.

The FAA wants to explore whether there should be vertical and horizontal stand-off distances for flights such as nighttime operations. They also sought comments on whether there would be costs to implementing these and what, if any type of mission, should be excluded from stand off distances.

Perhaps the biggest topic the FAA is set to explore is UTM. Integrating drones into the national airspace is a challenging task that many industry stakeholders would like to see become a reality.

In theory a more connected airspace would prevent confusion between manned and unmanned aircraft, open the way for more advanced operations and help enforcement agencies identify drones in operation.

There’s also the issue of current speed and altitude limits. The FAA wants to look into whether the Part 107 requirement to keep drones under (100 mph) and 400 feet are suitable for today’s environment and future applications.

Then, as mentioned above, there’s the issue of redundancy systems. It could be for certain operations such as delivery or other BVLOS applications, redundancy systems will be required for flight.

Parachutes are one obvious example but the FAA wants to explore what other design requirements should and could exist for drones to be considered airworthy.

You can find out more about how parachutes could make future drone ops safer here.

Tags: Drone Pilots Drone Regulations
Malek Murison
Malek Murison

Malek Murison is a technology journalist based in London who covers drone industry news and product reviews for DroneLife. He's written features for the Financial Times and words for some of the drone world's most exciting startups.

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