A mark in aviation history: NPRM for small UAS

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The recent release of the much anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for small UAS from the FAA marks a significant moment in this new era of aviation that is aerial robotics. As a drone geek and enthusiast, it’s encouraging to see a framework that will give a new generation of professional aviators access to the public good that is the national airspace system (NAS). And while it’s true that it will still take some time to allow for comment on this proposal before codifying it into law, there is a clear and reasonable path laid out by the FAA for evolving this hobby into a profession. However, the fact that the FAA doesn’t seem to want to address operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and within the urban environment strikes me as unnecessarily restrictive. It’s understandable to exercise caution on their first go at writing the rule, and there will be plenty of us continuing to remind them of the full context for aerial robotics as this proposal evolves to become the law.

As a professional aviator of over 17 years, I’m thrilled to see a framework that brings the important dimensions of aviation knowledge, operational safety, and a record of accountability into the mix for this new class of innovative pilots employing robots in the airspace. After all, as drivers we expect that everyone else sharing the road with us knows the difference between green, yellow, and red lights; and it’s no different for aviators. There are rules of the road in the sky that are just as fundamental as traffic lights, and those rules have been constructed for over 100 years now. The regulatory prose describing this system in FAA-speak are called the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), and they are compiled in what are called ‘Parts’. The proposed rule for small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) will be codified under ‘Part 107’. For context, Parts 101, 103, and 105 govern the use of Balloons, Ultralights, and Parachutes, respectively. Being a huge aviation nerd in general, reading through this whole new ‘Part 107’ of the FARs was like peeking ahead into a new era of aviation, and I thought it would be good to share how some of these new rules read to my eyes:

Part 107.13 – Registration, certification, and airworthiness directives
In order to operate a drone for non-recreational purposes, you’re going to need three things: a license to operate, registration for your vehicle, and the responsibility to keep that vehicle in good working order. These three responsibilities are familiar to any citizen who moves about without incident in our modern road system. The questions arise in the details of how these qualifications are issued, monitored, and enforced.

Part 107.63 Issuance of an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating
The notion of a knowledge test requirement to replace the private pilot’s license requirement specified in all of the approved Sec 333 applications to date appeared to be one of the more unanimous victories of the NPRM. A private pilot’s license was a blunt instrument to determine the necessary aptitude for this innovative new kind of aviator; this drone pilot who is augmented by robotics and cloud-based mobile information systems. Allowing professionals to bring aerial robots into the transportation system, providing they know the rules of the road, is a reasonable contract to make with the public good that is the airspace.

Professional drone pilots sit at the nexus of aviation and computer science, and the FAA has basically said here, ‘look, you can bring your robots into this transportation system, just prove to us that you know the rules of the road, and that we can trust you to follow them.’”

Part 107.15 Civil small unmanned aircraft system airworthiness
There’s already been a lot of buzz on the Interwebs about there being basically no so-called “airworthiness requirement” under the NPRM. This is because the FAA has (wisely, in my opinion) precluded itself from actually certifying the engineering for this category of aircraft. This is also the case with ultra-lights.. “Airworthiness” is a big, hairy word in aviation-speak because it usually means a very rigorous standard of federal certification akin to the FDA approving a new drug for commercial release; a completely appropriate rubric for a vehicle like a 737. But for the small vehicles (under 55 lbs) addressed in this category, a full ‘airworthiness certification’ issued by the FAA would be unnecessary and would have dramatically impeded the adoption of this new generation of engineering in aviation.

That being said, the notion of ‘airworthiness’, and the responsibility of the operator to maintain the aircraft in an airworthy condition is one of the fundamental tenets of aviation safety, and the FAA has made that very clear in this Part. What this means is that if you go to fire up your DJI Phantom to do a real estate shoot, and the autopilot fails its self test, you shouldn’t take off because the ‘airworthiness’ of the vehicle is in question. And while the FAA doesn’t specifically outline the contours of a formal maintenance program in this new rule (as they do in manned commercial operations), the responsibility defined in this Part encompasses the need to implement a system for recording and tracking faults, fixes, and the general condition (the ‘airworthiness’) of your vehicle(s).

Part 107.21 Maintenance and inspection.
To drive the point home about the responsibility for flying airworthy aircraft, this Part clearly states that the operator needs to both maintain the aircraft in an airworthy condition, as well as do a preflight check verifying this before taking off. Learning how to do a proper preflight is probably the first lesson any aviator ever receives, and it speaks to the old adage of aviation that, ‘all take-offs are optional, and all landings mandatory’. Always best to make sure the machine can fly before you put it in the air!

Part 107.31 Visual line of sight aircraft operation
This was the one section of the NPRM that struck me as timid. Trusted practices in manned aviation like Instrument flight Rules (IFR) were established decades ago because relying solely on the pilot being able to see something is not the safest and best practice. This is the case every time we land in a jet and look out the window to see the tarmac still shrouded in fog. The pilots couldn’t see a thing as they maneuvered thousands of tons of metal and fuel and hundreds of passengers to make contact with a narrow strip of wet asphalt at well over 100mph. Instead of their eyes, they trust and monitor a system of sensors, signals, and servos to automate the process with a precision and reliability that would be impossible without the robotics that already exist in the cockpit today.

Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) is an engineering problem we’ve already solved under IFR. With aerial robotics, those solutions only get more sophisticated. The fact is that piloting both manned and unmanned aircraft is highly automated already, and it’s a system we trust regularly with our lives. It is a tempered and hardened system of aviation safety, a combination of engineering and ‘rules of the road’, that allows us to fly through clouds and fog when the pilots up front can’t see a thing. With aerial robotics, the ‘instruments’ are far more advanced than anything we’ve seen in aviation before. All that’s left is to write the rules, and in this era of aviation history, those rules, and the roads they refer to, are much more precise and inherently digital.

If you look at what companies like DJI and 3DR are doing, you can see what I mean by the rules becoming inherently digital. Their autopilots are already programmed to keep the vehicle within whatever boundaries the operator sets. Soon, Skyward will be providing our digital air chart to the ground control stations (GCS) that operators use to interface with these vehicles. This will allow the rules of the road to be condensed into a set of scheduled and geo-fenced volumes of airspace, and the operator can feel confident that she’s flying safely and legally with respect for that airspace.

Amazon is right to push for rules that allow integrated aerial robotic operations, including beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) and urban operations. These kinds of use cases can be accomplished under the same standards of aviation safety we trust today. It will require testing, along with intelligent harmonization of the engineering that makes it possible, with the rules that allow for it. That’s the exact same blueprint the entire infrastructure of aviation has followed since the Wright Brothers, and it’s time for another intelligent iteration.

*You can read the full NPRM and submit comments to the FAA.