In my last article, I posted an overview of the industry response to the FAA’s recent notice of proposed rulemaking regarding drone flights over people. Today, I’ll go over the initial response to the FAA’s advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM). This covers a number of diverse topics aimed at “safe and secure” drone flights. Skyward contributed to comments submitted by CTIA, AUVSI, and the Small UAV Coalition. Although we appreciate the FAA’s collaborative approach to developing new regulations and systems such as LAANC, the industry response to this ANPRM has been one of skepticism. Both the hodgepodge of topics and the unclear timeframe for implementation have raised eyebrows. I’ll cover a few of the topline issues below.

1. Stand-off distances for drones

The ANPRM asks a number of questions about prescribing stand-off distances between drones or between drones and structures. We agree that stand-off distances aren’t needed at this time—and that imposing such a rule could even be harmful. For one thing, we don’t have data that stand-off distances would lead to safer flights. At this point, stand-off distance seems best left to operator judgment, especially because they would be impossible to enforce without a UTM system in place. It’s possible that in the future, prescribing stand-off distances may make sense for some concepts of operation, but for now any such rule is premature.

2. UAS Traffic Management (UTM)

Skyward couldn’t be more supportive of the system-of-systems approach to air traffic management. We feel confident that UTM will spur innovation and business growth, and allow drones to become the vanguard of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Our president, Mariah Scott, advocated for UTM as part of her congressional testimony last September. But it doesn’t make much sense to talk about establishing rules for UTM prior to requiring remote identification—a foundational element of any UTM system. The FAA had intended to release a remote ID NPRM this May; any further discussion on UTM rules should wait until after it has been implemented. In the meantime, LAANC provides a good framework going forward: it’s publicly available, with certain UTM characteristics, and created in collaboration with industry. We encourage the FAA to follow a similar process for creating remote ID and other UTM features. 

3. Payload restrictions for drones

The ANPRM asks whether the government should prohibit drones from carrying certain types of dangerous payloads. The industry agrees that drones shouldn’t transport weapons and hazardous chemicals. However, existing federal, state, and local laws already address these concerns. AUVSI commented that more laws are not only unnecessary but will “unreasonably hinder the development of legitimate UAS operations, and because problematic conduct is already barred by existing law, such restrictions will not produce any corresponding public safety or national security benefit.” DJI also pointed out that some parachute safety systems include materials that could potentially be classified as hazardous. Obviously, restricting a drone’s safety features would be counterproductive.

4. Airspace, altitude, and other performance limitations for drones

The FAA requested comment on any new safety-focused performance limitations. In our view, the limitations contained in Part 107—400 foot ceiling, no flights in restricted airspace, etc—are already sufficient and probably too restrictive from a purely safety perspective. The industry as a whole has maintained a very good safety record. The FAA should be working to remove as many existing limitations as we safely can. A great example of this is the FAA’s proposed rule to allow flights at night for pilots who have received extra training and fly drones with anti-collision lighting.

5. Critical system design requirements for drones

Part 107 doesn’t include design standards for drones. So, the FAA asked whether redundant systems could lower risks for flights such as BVLOS and flights over people. We appreciate that the FAA continues to evaluate the safety of systems. And while it’s possible that redundancy could make some features safer, requiring redundancy underestimates the reliability of the other components. AUVSI points out that, for a drone to stay under the 55 lb limit, it can’t have any unnecessary parts. Ultimately, a requirement for redundant systems wouldn’t make drones safer, but it would make it harder for manufacturers to comply with rules and it would further limit the payload that operators could legally transport. The FAA must continue to balance the needs of a particular concept of operations with any new safety rule or standard it puts forward.

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