A Quick Q&A With the FAA on the State of Drone Regulation
A brief primer on where the industry is at.
When I spoke with Flytrex CEO Yariv Bash about his company’s drone delivery program earlier this week, he was effusive in his praise of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It’s a bit odd to hear a private company praise a government agency as much as Bash did, but he was adamant the FAA is leaps ahead of other civil aviation authorities around the world.
Of course Flytrex — and any other new drone delivery startup in the U.S. — literally needs FAA approval to conduct business, so it behooves anyone in the drone business to connect and play nice with the agency as soon as possible.
It’s been awhile since I checked in on the state of drone delivery regulation in the U.S., so I reached out to the FAA to find out more. They preferred emailed questions over an in-person interview, so the following is a lightly edited written exchange between OttOmate and an FAA spokesperson.
How fully developed are federal regulations around this emerging drone food delivery market?
Visual line-of-sight drone deliveries are currently allowed under Part 107, provided the drone and its cargo weigh less than 55 pounds. The operator, which must be a remote pilot, must see the drone at all times and cannot fly it across state lines. The FAA has certificated some drone-delivery operators as air carriers using Part 119, which allows for more complex operations under Part 135. The FAA will use data gathered from current operations to further integrate drone delivery operations into the National Airspace System.
In November 2020, the FAA announced the publication of airworthiness criteria for the proposed certification of 10 different drones as special-class aircraft. This is an important step toward more complex drone operations beyond what currently is allowed under Part 107, including package delivery.
The FAA’s goal is to move from individual approvals to the predictability of operating by rule, especially for vital activities such as infrastructure inspection, public safety, and package delivery. To address this challenge, the FAA announced an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight Operations (BVLOS) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) on June 8, 2021. The objective of the ARC is to provide the FAA with recommendations for performance-based regulations to normalize safe, scalable, economically viable and environmentally advantageous BVLOS operations that are not under air traffic control.
You can find more information on drone deliveries on the FAA website.
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How many drone delivery companies are currently working with the FAA? What have you learned from your pilot programs so far?
The FAA launched the UAS Partnership for Safety Plan (PSP) Program in December 2016 to address and advance complex unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operational capabilities. The PSP provides an arrangement to share mutually beneficial information, while building trust, leadership, and teamwork through a public-private relationship. Current PSP partners include Amazon Prime Air, UPS Flight Forward, and Wing. Through the UAS Integration Pilot Program and the BEYOND Program, the FAA has worked with other drone delivery companies through the state, local, and tribal governments that serve as the lead participants of these programs.
What are some factors/complications about air delivery that drone delivery startups might not be aware of as they start out?
Drone delivery is considered a complex operation. While some types of visual line-of-sight drone delivery operations can be conducted under Part 107, as discussed above, Part 135 certification is the only path for small drones deliver goods for compensation beyond visual line-of-sight. More information is available here.
What has or will change from a regulatory perspective as more companies launch drone delivery services, sometimes multiple services in the same city?
To meet industry and public demand, the FAA is following an integration strategy based on risk; that is, low-risk operations are integrated first, followed by increasingly complex and higher-risk operations.
The lowest risk operations are recreational and commercial operations within visual line-of-sight (VLOS). Commercial beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) and cargo operations are considered higher risk operations.
Several years ago, the FAA adopted an “Operations First” approach to enable safe BVLOS and cargo operations in the near-term by allowing deviations from existing rules.
While waivers and exemptions have enabled testing and the gathering of data to inform future decisions, it is labor intensive, time consuming, and cannot be scaled to meet the needs of the industry.
Now that the Remote ID and operations over people and at night rules have been finalized, the FAA is turning its focus to enabling BVLOS operations without visual observers that are repeatable, scalable, and economically viable across rural, suburban, and urban environments. As mentioned above, the objective of the BVLOS ARC is to provide the FAA with recommendations for performance-based regulations to normalize safe, scalable, economically viable and environmentally advantageous BVLOS operations that are not under air traffic control. The recommendations produced by this committee may pave the way for routine drone package delivery.