If you follow U.S. drone regulations, you’ve probably seen that the FAA has proposed an array of new rules. And if this is news to you, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, I’ll cover the latest notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) and the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM). Both of these were released last month. Part of my job is to work with the FAA to ensure that rules reflect the realities of commercial drone operations. I’d love to know your thoughts on these topics. Email me at contact@skyward.io with NPRM in the subject line.

In this post, I’ll stick to summarizing the proposed new rules. In my next post, I’ll go in depth on a few issues we’d like to see resolved for both the NPRM and ANPRM.

Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

In January, Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced proposed new drone rules. They would allow drones to fly at night and over people under some conditions without waivers. This would remove a barrier for many companies that use drones, especially those in media, broadcast, and public safety.

Drone Flights at Night

Under Part 107, pilots aren’t allowed to fly drones at night unless they’ve received a waiver from the FAA. The new rule would permit flights at night as long as the drone has anti-collision lighting and the pilot has received required night flight training. This is a straightforward rule change that would codify the thousands of daylight waivers granted by the FAA.

Drone Flights Over People

The change for flights over people is more complex. The draft NPRM proposes a three-category framework for UAS permitted to operate over people:

  • Category 1 would allow drones weighing less than .55 pounds including payload to fly over people. Pilots would fly under Part 107 with no added restrictions. The major exception: flying over moving vehicles would not be allowed for any of the three categories.
  • Category 2 would allow flights of drones that weigh more than .55 pounds including payload as long as they can’t transfer “11 foot-pounds of kinetic energy upon impact.” In other words, a Category 2 drone couldn’t injure a person any more than a baseball tossed underhand. Also, Category 2 drones would not be allowed to have exposed rotating parts that could cut a person’s skin.
  • Category 3 drones could weigh more than .55 pounds, with maximum kinetic energy upon impact of 25 foot-pounds (about the same as a child throwing a baseball). Category 3 drones would not be allowed to fly over open-air assemblies of people. They would only be able to operate over people if either of the following criteria is met:
    (1) The drone flight is within or over a closed- or restricted-access site, and every person within the site is told that a drone may fly over.
    (2)
    The drone doesn’t hover over any person not directly involved in the drone flight or located under a covered structure or inside a stopped vehicle that could provide cover from a falling drone.

Category 2 and 3 drones would need FAA declarations of compliance, current remote pilot operating instructions, appropriate labeling, and be subject to a product support and notification process. And again, none of the three categories of drones would be allowed to fly over people inside of moving vehicles.

This NPRM is now in the Federal Register, which means that anyone—including you!—can submit comments. After the 60 day comment window, the FAA will read and respond to every comment. They could also edit the NPRM based on comments from the public. Then, they’ll post a final NPRM which will become the rule in two to three months. In this case, the process may take longer because the FAA will require remote ID of drones before allowing drone flights over people and at night.   

Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

In contrast to the NPRM, the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking covers a wide range of topics. They include UTM, stand-off distances, and redundant system requirements. All of the potential changes fall under “Safe and Secure Operations of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.”

The topics are so diverse that I suggest you head over to the Federal Register and read it for yourself. Here is a bit more on the topics under consideration:

Stand-off Distances for Drones

While Part 107 doesn’t mandate stand-off distances, some other countries do. The FAA asks for comments on what the vertical and horizontal stand-off distances should be and if they should exist for only certain types of flights (such as night ops). They are also asking about associated tech and costs and if any types of flights should be excluded from any stand-off requirements. 

Altitude, Airspeed, and Other Performance Limits for Drones

Under Part 107 drones have to stay under 87 knots (100 mph) and 400 feet above ground level or the highest point of a structure. As we find new ways to use drones and they continue to integrate into the national airspace, the FAA continues to look at ways to limit risk. The FAA asks for comment on any new safety-focused performance limitations and whether they would support public safety and national security. Other questions include whether new limits would affect any current operation types and about any associated costs.

UTM

As we integrate drones into the airspace, many stakeholders have advocated for a traffic management system for drones. At Skyward, we see UTM as a way to safely enable a wide range of use cases for drones. The FAA will also depend on UTM as a way to identify operators and create operational norms so they can quickly identify bad actors. The FAA asks for comment on how sharing information (such as flight paths) could help to reduce risks and the suite of capabilities the system should have. Questions include the types of flights that should be subject to UTM requirements, and whether certain types should be excluded. Among other things, they’re also asking whether any information should be available to the general public, and information law enforcement should be able to access.

Payload Restrictions for Drones

Recently, Congress enacted a law that prohibits a person from operating a drone that has a weapon attached. It also prohibits using a drone to transport chemicals and hazardous waste. However, the law didn’t address all types of payloads that could pose a threat. We know people have used drones for illegal surveillance, to deliver contraband to prisons, to damage public infrastructure, and for other malicious activities. So the FAA is considering whether Part 107 prohibit other payloads as well. Questions include if and what kinds of prohibitions could protect public safety, and whether there should be exceptions.

Small UAS Critical System Design Requirements

Part 107 doesn’t include design standards or require drones to have airworthiness certificates. However, redundant systems could lower the risks for certain types of drone flights such as BVLOS and flights over people. The FAA asks whether it should create design requirements, such as redundant systems, for these types of flights.

There’s a lot under consideration that could affect commercial drone flights. At Skyward, we want to advocate for sensible rules that support both safety and innovative business practices. I encourage you to comment on both the NPRM or ANPRM, or send an email to contact@skyward.io to let us know your thoughts.