UAS industry reacts to FAA's proposed sUAS rules

By UAS Magazine Staff | February 16, 2015

Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, woke up this morning more excited about the UAV industry than ever before. With the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s long-anticipated release of its notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) for small unmanned aircraft vehicles, Drobac said his Coalition’s members, along with the vast majority of the commercially-focused unmanned aircraft systems industry, “is thrilled about the potential the rules can bring.”

Following a leak of an FAA NPRM for sUAVs document, the agency tasked with creating and regulating the UAS industry held a press briefing and officially released its proposed guidelines for commercial UAS use in the national airspace on Sunday, February 15. The rules will allow for the use of certain sUAVs for commercial purposes—a practice currently restricted only to companies that receive FAA-issued exemptions—and also maintain a level of flexibility for future technological innovations in the UAS industry, according to the FAA. The FAA will now allow 60 days for public comment on the rules before it reviews and allows for a comment reply period. Then, following both periods, the FAA may issue a final rule on sUAVs allowing for full commercialization under the finalized stipulations. “It is wonderful that we actually have a notice,” Drobac told UAS Magazine. “It means we can begin to work on something that is tangible.”

The Proposed Rules

The FAA’s NPRM document addresses four separate provisions: operational limitations, operator certification and responsibilities, aircraft requirements and model aircrafts.

In its rules overview on operational limitations, the FAA noted 19 separate, specific segments within the provisional category. The segments included the following statements:

-UAVS must weigh less than 55 pounds.

-Visual line-of-sight must be maintained by operator or the visual observer accompanying the operator.

-sUAVs may not operate over any persons not directly involved in the operation.

-Daylight operations only.

-sUAVs must yield to other aircraft.

-First-person view camera cannot satisfy see-and-avoid.

-Maximum airspeed of 100 mph.

-Maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level.

-Minimum weather visibility of three miles.

-Operations prohibited above 18,000 feet.

-Multi-UAV operation at one time prohibited.

-Preflight inspection by operator required.

For its operator certification and responsibilities provisions, the FAA said sUAS pilots would be considered operators and that the need for a private’s pilot’s license would not be required. The operators would instead be required to pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center. The operator would also be required to obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating. Every two years, the operator would have to take and pass the knowledge test. Operator age minimum would be 17 years old; accidents must be reported within 10 days of the incident, and documents and platforms must be made available to the FAA upon request.

Under its aircraft requirements, the FAA said that following its final rules, an operator would not have to obtain a certificate of airworthiness. Aircraft markings would be required, but, if the aircraft is small, the markings must be displayed in the largest practical area on the platform.

The NPRM will not apply to model aircraft or those used for hobby purposes.

The total cost to an operator interested in obtaining the necessary certification through the FAA in order to commercially operate a small UAS would be roughly $6,803, according to projections by the FAA. The largest portion of those fees would be linked to knowledge test fees and test times, each of which would cost $2,548 and $1,307, respectively.

Industry Reaction

Drobac said his members—which include Amazon, 3D Robotics, Airware and several other large-scale commercial UAV entities—share his excitement for the rules, and still believe, or hope, the proposed rules recently issued will evolve. “There are some things that suggest we are still not where we need to be as a country and how we are looking at this [UAS industry],” he said.

Mark Dombroff, partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP and former head of the U.S. Department of Justice's aviation litigation group, said the rules are different than what many may have expected. "I think a lot of people were expecting a much stricter approach on the part of the FAA," he said. "I think it is a very constructive, positive step going forward. I think the most important thing that people should gain in the process is the fact that federal rules and regulations are minimum standards." 

The limitation on operators to fly within the line-of-sight is a major hindrance to the industry, he said. The flight path, specifically the route restrictions that do not allow operators to fly over people who have not given consent to an operation, is also a major drawback of the proposed rules. “A UAV that is operating commercially over people that all have to be associated with the commercial operation is entirely way too restrictive,” he said. As an example of the rules downside, Drobac cited first response UAS applications. If a first responder wants to deploy a UAV over a burning building to assess the best escape routes for inhabitants of the building, that first responder would not be allowed to do so without the consent of the people in the building first.

Mark Baker, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said that the AOPA is pleased that the FAA is moving the rulemaking process forward, “but this really can’t happen fast enough.”

Jesse Kallman, director of business development and regulatory affairs for Airware, a UAS software provider, called the absence of a requirement for aircraft certification a welcome surprise. “Removing the need for aircraft certification,” he said in a statement, “will allow the market to grow at a much more rapid pace.”

Michael Huerta, FAA administrator, said that had a requirement for airworthiness certification been left in the NPRM, UAV manufacturers may have had to spend as much as three to five years to obtain the certification. “With the pace of innovation in the market, an unmanned aircraft could very well be outdated by the time it obtained a certificate,” Huerta said. “Therefore, no airworthiness certificate is needed.”

In addition to his stance on line-of-sight, flight route restrictions and others, Drobac also said limiting the payload weight on sUAVs is also a portion of the NPRM his team will work to change.

Even as Drobac, his team, and his members are looking to change portions of the FAA’s rules, the mood of the industry is clear. “The members of my coalition and the industry believe we have made progress. This is where it gets exciting. Everyone is feeling pretty excited about the future.”

The Industry’s Future

With the FAA’s NPRM documents now available for comment, the agency will allow for 60 days to receive comments that could lead to changes in the final rule. Following the comment period, a reply period from the FAA and others will take place and then, sometime in 2015, the final rules could be issued.

Drobac, however, is not certain if the FAA will issue the final rules any time soon in 2015. The possibility of an expedited final rule process is possible he said, however, along with intervention from Congress. Drobac’s belief in Congressional intervention in 2015 is based on the drone incident that occurred at the White House earlier this year. Following the incident during which a sUAV crashed onto the lawn of the White House property, President Obama said publically that he wanted to see the sUAS rules. “For the President to engage in an administrative process with one agency of government is downright incredible,” Drobac said.

While the industry awaits a final rule, there will be a continued hope and push for more FAA exemptions that allow specific entities to perform commercial UAS operations, according to Drobac. “You can’t put out a proposed rule and suggest that the industry is in a good position to add value and not present great risk and then not expedite the statutory authority you [the FAA] have been granted to approve exemptions.” 

"I think the biggest thing with this is that the FAA has done nothing that in any way has provided a disincentive for entrepreneurship, and that is probably one of the most,sort of larger aspects of this," Dombroff said.


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