Currently, most commercial UAS operations are conducted under 14 CFR Part 107, which outlines limitations to minimize air and ground risks. These limitations include a maximum altitude of 400 ft AGL, visual line of sight of the aircraft and daytime operations only. A recent rule allows limited operations over people, but many restrictions remain.
Some commercial UAS operations are considered air carrier operations and are conducted under Part 135, but extensive exemptions and limitations are typically required to conduct UAS operations under these rules.
“Existing rules basically don’t fit the requirements for full implementation of commercial UAS capabilities,” said Jon Damush, CEO of Iris Automation, Inc., a safety avionics technology company pioneering detect-and-avoid systems and aviation policy services that enable customers to build scalable BVLOS operations for commercial drones. “The current regulations still limit UAS use cases.”
Consider inspection of towers by UAS, for example. By using UAS, the inspector doesn’t need climbing gear or to risk a fall, but the operator must still launch the UAS, inspect the tower, recover the UAS, get in a vehicle and drive to the next tower, and repeat.
Broader application of BVLOS operations will allow longer-distance operations to support agricultural businesses, land surveying, utility inspection and even convenient delivery of critical goods. BVLOS is also crucial to operating at a higher aircraft-to-pilot ratio, which is an essential economic component of the future feasibility of the industry.
Changing the Regulatory Framework
While the existing regulatory framework hasn’t yet adapted to meet the broad demand for commercial UAS operations, Jon Hanlon, director of UAS maintenance and airworthiness at Zipline, says it’s “overly simplistic” to suggest the challenges are purely regulatory or purely technology-based.
“Existing rules basically don’t fit the requirements for full implementation of commercial UAS capabilities. ”
JON DAMUSH CEO, Iris Automation, Inc.
“Zipline has conducted over 300,000 commercial deliveries at multi-national scale and across three continents over the last five and a half years,” said Hanlon. “We’ve learned firsthand that design, manufacturing and operational excellence, as well as a regulatory and certification regime based on real-world results, are all required to achieve safe, scaled drone flights.”
Notably, the FAA has recently sought to leverage such real-world results as well as community input.
Last June, the agency established the UAS BVLOS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to address BVLOS operations. The ARC, made up of almost 90 industry and stakeholder groups, including members of NBAA’s Emerging Technologies Committee, was tasked with providing recommendations for BVLOS operations for long-line linear infrastructure inspections, industrial aerial data gathering, small package delivery, and precision agriculture operations, including crop spraying. In March, the ARC provided the FAA with a final report of more than 70 recommendations.
The FAA was scheduled to hold a public meeting on UAS BVLOS on June 22 through its YouTube channel and Facebook page to provide the public an opportunity to submit written comments or request a timeslot to provide oral comments.
“The importance of industry perspective, whether by participating in the ARC or by submitting comments in response to the ARC report, in establishing effective, safe and efficient policies and regulations cannot be overstated,” said Heidi Williams, NBAA’s senior director of air traffic services and infrastructure. “That feedback guides the FAA’s decision-making and provides insight into the industry that the agency just can’t form independently.”
Improved Safety for All Aircraft
Experts say traditional business aircraft and operations will see benefits from innovation occurring in the UAS space, including transfer of new technologies that will improve safety and provide workforce benefits.
“Increased automation will eventually come to crewed aircraft and will increase the overall safety level in crewed aviation. It will enable a new era of simplified pilot operations in which we can get to very safe, effective single-pilot crews – and in the future, uncrewed,” said Damush.
Damush isn’t talking about fully autonomous flight; rather, he’s talking about the human “on the loop,” using automation tools. He says AOPA’s Joseph T. Nall Report shows that most fatalities in general aviation are a result of human error. Part 121 operations do not see that level of incident/fatality rate, and automation in the cockpit is a contributor to that.
To Damush, “the correlation is pretty clear,” although he doesn’t suggest full autonomy is the solution for every type of operation. Instead, keeping a human on the loop to manage contingencies and letting the aircraft systems do the work can lead to safer, more efficient operations. The key to success for this concept is for the systems to function predictably.
These same technology advances will also eventually help address workforce issues in business and commercial aviation by requiring fewer pilots per aircraft – reducing the current pilot strain felt throughout aviation – and creating new entry- and senior- level jobs in aviation throughout the UAS space and the country.
“We’ve learned firsthand that design, manufacturing and operational excellence, as well as a regulatory and certification regime based on real-world results, are all required to achieve safe, scaled drone flight. ”
JON HANLON, Director of UAS Maintenance and Airworthiness, Zipline
“Drones are a rewarding and growing pathway into aviation careers,” said Hanlon. “This is especially the case as companies look to establish strong, diverse and inclusive teams at all levels of education and in all parts of the country.”
For now, however, many commercial UAS operators are driven to request exemptions or waivers from the various existing rules – Part 91, 107 or 135 – with limited FAA resources to manage multiple waiver and exemption requests.
Waivers and exemptions also create an unstable long-term operating environment, as they typically expire anywhere from a few days to two years and must be re-applied for to ensure continuity of operations. Each re-application carries a risk of being denied.
“Currently, BVLOS operations are trapped in a regulatory Catch-22,” said Hanlon. “Data must show BVLOS operations can be conducted safely in order to operate, but the only way to obtain that data at scale is to allow BVLOS operations to occur.”
But proven programs can provide a way out of this entanglement. Continuing analysis and surveillance systems and safety management systems already provide management frameworks to enable operators to assess risk and be proactive in making improvements. These could be aligned to operations conditioned on FAA-designated performance and safety targets.
Hanlon suggests the way forward should be to leverage the value of what already exists – 100 years of commercial aviation experience – while finding pragmatic approaches to enable UAS operators to begin BVLOS quickly.
Review NBAA’s unmanned aircraft resources at nbaa.org/uas.