In the United States, UAV Integration into airspace is getting closer to reality
By Gretchen West – Drone Deploy
Many of us in the commercial drone industry have eagerly been eyeing 2015 for quite some time…specifically, we’ve been eyeing it since the FAA Modernization and Reform Act was passed in 2012. In that bill, there were many milestones for the FAA to reach to enable commercial operations of drones in the United States with the “ultimate” goal of safe UAV integration into airspace by September 30, 2015. Admittedly, I (and many others) have been skeptical that the FAA would reach this September 2015 deadline and have any sort of meaningful integration of commercial drones, but my long-standing skepticism is beginning to show shades of optimism. Here’s why.
The big shining 2015 moment was on Sunday, February 15th when the FAA held a press conference to reveal the long-awaited Small UAV Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). Thanks to a leaked document the NPRM came out on President’s weekend and hundreds of industry stakeholders joined the press conference hosted by Secretary Foxx and Administrator Huerta. Without rehashing all the pros and cons of the NRPM which has been discussed at length over the past few months, the point to make is that the NPRM offered unexpected allowances for commercial operations of drones. The rule would suggest that operators would not need a private pilots license or an airworthiness certificate for the vehicles which were likely the most surprising allowances. However, there were still several limitations in the proposed rule such as not allowing operations beyond visual line of sight, at night or over people not involved in the operation. Regardless, this was a surprising and welcome step forward from the FAA…in 2015.
In 2014 the FAA launched and began approving commercial operations through the Section 333 Exemption process. To me, this was a bandaid approach to get our industry to widespread use of drones commercially, but it still allowed some operators to start flying and prove the validity of this growing market. At first, the FAA was slow to approve these exemptions, but starting in 2015, the pace of approvals increased. In fact, the FAA streamlined the process to make it easier for operators to fly commercially – applying for a COA is no longer a separate, lengthy process; blanket COAs for flight below 200 feet AGL under certain restrictions were allowed; and for previously approved operations and vehicles, the path was paved for new requests under the same circumstances to receive expedited approval.
Last week, the FAA made two other announcements which would further advance and support commercial UAV integration into airspace. The first is an extension of the FAA’s Pathfinder program (original participants Insitu and AeroVironment received approvals for operating in the Arctic) with added partners CNN, BNSF Railway and PrecisionHawk. The Pathfinder program is geared towards research and learning about operations and with these new partners, the focus is specifically on newsgathering operations (possibly over people) by CNN and beyond visual line of sight operations by BNSF Railway and PrecisionHawk. While only research at this point, the learnings from this program will be critical to traverse beyond some of the restrictions likely to be seen in the final Small UAV rule.
The second announcement was an extension of the FAA and industry consortium educational campaign, Know Before You Fly, with the inclusion of an app for users to instantly know the airspace restrictions where they want to fly. The B4UFLY app will be a useful tool for operators to avoid restricted areas and learn more about airspace allocations for flying and of course, help promote safe operation of drones.
Congress has also been engaging more in 2015 hosting hearings specifically to discuss UAS (drone) integration and research. Having tracked hearings on this subject for many years, I’ve noticed an attitudinal shift from these decision-makers. They’re more aware of the benefits of drone use commercially and their frustration is apparent in their opening statements and in their questions to the FAA. Just this week, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and John Hoeven (R-ND) proposed the Commercial UAS Modernization Act which would “create a framework that will promote American innovation in the rapidly growing field of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and the safe integration of UAS in the National Airspace System.” Some of the provisions of this proposed bill would make the existing NPRM an interim final rule taking effect upon enactment. It would require all aircraft to be registered with an aggressive timeline for implementation, and it would require the commercial operations to have liability insurance. The bill would create a deputy associate administrator position responsible for research and development, creation of the registration system and management of other issues, such as spectrum, autonomy and beyond visual line of site operations. This official would also have authority to issue some exemptions for commercial operations. The bill also directs the FAA Tech Center and NASA to implement a UTM pilot program for small UAV operations below 1200 feet in both controlled and uncontrolled airspace. Notably, similar to the NPRM, not all provisions of the bill are positive in that the bill requires a minimum of 25 hours of flying experience and 200 landing and takeoff cycles which is even more than the FAA accepted in the section 333 exemptions. The bill also requires test sites to “certify” the aircraft meets certain requirements, whereas the NPRM only details that the aircraft be under 55 pounds and have a preflight inspection. Regardless of the pros and cons of the bill, it is a positive sign that Congress has taken the initiative to more aggressively push for commercial operations of drones.
Looking back over the last few months of 2015, we have seen more commitment from the FAA towards advancing the growth of the commercial drone industry. Many will still argue that it may be too little too late, but it is refreshing to see this decision-making body start to consider innovation over bureaucracy. And while the FAA will not publicly commit to the timeline for release of the final rule, rumor has it that they have the end of 2015 as their goal. So we know we will likely not see safe UAV integration into airspace by September 30, 2015, at least on a widespread basis, but I will shake off my pessimism and remain pleased about what has passed to date in 2015 and will remain optimistic about what more is to come this year.