Nine months ago, the FAA established an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to make recommendations on regulations that would facilitate the operation of drones beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the drone pilot. Verizon/Skyward was invited to be a member, along with several companies, non-profits, and associations representing a range of aviation interests, including drone manufacturers, test sites, drone delivery companies, and crewed aviation interests.

On March 10, the ARC published its final report, setting forth its analysis of the current regulatory framework for drones and recommendations for the appropriate criteria to enable safe, scalable, and environmentally friendly BVLOS drone operations in the United States.

Right now, a pilot or visual observer has to keep the drone within eyesight at all times unless they get a waiver from the FAA. The waiver process is cumbersome and lengthy, while BVLOS regulations would allow pilots to fly drones at much further distances (or in areas where visibility is restricted) without going through a waiver process.

The report, however, is just the recommendations from drone stakeholders to the FAA; the FAA is the one that has to officially propose and adopt the actual regulations. In doing so, the FAA can rely heavily on the recommendations in the ARC report, or not at all.

First, let me summarize the contents of the report, and then we’ll discuss next steps. 

5 areas of recommendation to enable BVLOS drone flights

There are five areas of recommendations in the report:

  1. Set a consistent acceptable level of risk for drones across all types of operations. Operators can demonstrate that they meet the acceptable level of risk using qualitative or quantitative methods or a hybrid approach. Additionally, as drone operations become more common, the acceptable level of risk can be adjusted. 
  2. Modify existing FAA right-of-way rules in low-altitude areas in order to accommodate uncrewed aircraft operations. These amendments included giving drones the right of way in shielded areas (within 100 feet of a structure), giving drones the right of way over any crewed aircraft that do not have Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) or Traffic Awareness Beacon Systems (TABS), and allowing right of way for crewed aircraft that are equipped with ADS-B or TABS and broadcasting their position. Note that this was the most controversial area of the report, and it was included over the objections of many crewed aircraft stakeholders.
  3. Include BVLOS in remote pilot licensing. This would include two new operating certificates: a Remote Air Carrier Certificate and a Remote Operating Certificate, which would be required for most commercial one-to-many operations.
  4. Establish a set of regulations governing BVLOS operations that includes a process for qualification of drone aircraft and systems. This qualification would be based on kinetic energy (i.e. the amount of energy a drone would impart when falling from the sky) rather than maximum takeoff weight.
  5. Create a non-mandatory regulatory scheme for the use of third-party services for BVLOS operations. This may include things like mapping, command and control, and communications links — some of which Verizon and Skyward may be able to provide in the future.

Differing opinions on BVLOS operations within the ARC

71 members of the ARC cast votes on the report (14 members appear not to have cast votes). 42 concurred, 19 concurred with exceptions, and 10 dissented. Ballots can be viewed online here.

Of the dissenters, most represented crewed aviators who took exception to the recommendations regarding right-of-way. Additionally, a few advocacy organizations dissented due to concerns that the report did not adequately address the privacy of the general public with respect to drones. Those that concurred with exception generally registered very small exceptions. Some “exceptions,” like those submitted by Verizon/Skyward, weren’t actual exceptions, but rather taking the opportunity for further comment.

Next steps

The next step will be for the FAA to draft its BVLOS rule proposal, which they will then publish so that any interested party can comment. After one or more rounds of notice and comment, the FAA will adopt a final rule. The FAA has likely already started drafting the rules, but the rulemaking process is a long one, and it’s likely it will take one to two years before a rule is finalized. That could take even longer if there are any of a number of possible interruptions, such as other agencies wanting to provide input (e.g. defense or security agencies), a change in administration or FAA leadership, or an unexpected distraction at the FAA (e.g. an aviation industry catastrophe, even if not related to drones). 

Outside of timelines, there is also the question of the extent to which the FAA will incorporate the ARC Report recommendations into its proposed rules. The ARC membership was largely made up of companies and organizations that support drone interests, and was not representative of the aviation industry overall. While only 10 ARC members dissented, that includes almost all of the stakeholders representing crewed aviation. Importantly, the FAA’s core constituency is crewed aviation, who will likely continue to push back on some of the recommendations with which they disagreed. It is likely that at least some of that pushback will be reflected in the rules that the FAA proposes; the degree of that is uncertain. 

You can read the final FAA ARC Report here.