Elaine L. Chao, here at the Drone Integration Pilot Program launch in November 2017, said today that there are some 1.3 million registered drones and more than 116,000 registered drone operators in the US. Image: Senator John Hoeven (ND)

US FAA to relax c-drone flight rules over people and at night; announces UTM pilot project

Policy • regulations • airspace

Elaine L. Chao, US Secretary of Transportation, has proposed new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules for c-drone flights and announced a drone air traffic management pilot project in a speech in Washington at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. In prepared remarks, Secretary Chao said:

In this Administration, the Department’s approach to new transportation technologies is performance-based, rather than highly prescriptive. We are not in the business of picking technology winners and losers. Our philosophy is to encourage the widest possible development of safe new transportation technologies, so consumers and communities can choose the mix of options that suits them best.

The announcements significantly extend the 2016 Part 107 rules for commercial drone operations in the US and follow the successful rollout last year of the automated flight permission system, LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability), created with industry partners AirMap, Harris Corp., Alphabet’s Project Wing, Skyward, Thales Group, Aeronyde, Airbus, AiRXOS, Altitude Angel, Converge, DJI, KittyHawk, UASidekick, and Unifly.

Since the implementation of Part 107, commercial operators must apply to the FAA for specific waivers to fly at night or over people, due to the potential safety risk. Previous Part 107 restrictions have been maintained, such as Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) flight rules, the 400 ft altitude ceiling, and the ban for flying over moving vehicles.

Underlining a safety-first approach, the FAA published three proposed “technologically-neutral” initiatives:

  • Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) — Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems over People [PDF]: These proposed rules will extend the existing Part 107 rules for professional applications during nighttime and over people. The existing rules required special waivers for many c-drone applications such as aerial photography over cities, first responders, network television, insurance adjusting, package deliveries, or urban surveying for construction or planning. Drones are classed into three categories by level of potential injury. Pilots will be required to show their remote pilot certificate to any law enforcement officer. Night flying will require anti-collision lights and additional training. There is a provision for modifying manufacturer-certified drones.
  • Advance Notice of Proposed Rule Making (ANPRM) — Safe and Secure Operations of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems [PDF]: The FAA is seeking comment from the public and industry on c-drone safety and security as it prepares to integrate drones into the National Airspace System (NAS). The regulator wants to decide whether and how impose new restrictions in performance, payloads (e.g. hazardous materials), standoff distances from buildings or people, remote identification, pilot training, and other criteria. The public comment period will be 60 days following publication in the Federal Register [Ed: this site is currently not being updated due to the partial federal government shutdown].
  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management System Pilot Program [PDF]: the FAA has selected three sites, Nevada UAS Test Site Smart Silver State; Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site; and Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, to participate in an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM or U-space) test project which will run until September. The goal is to study how best to integrate managed c-drone traffic into exising Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the FAA combined their separate UTM reseach efforts in April 2017.

The FAA cites existing rules from the United Kingdom, the European Union (EASA), and Canada in its documents, for example concerning standoff distances, a concept absent from the Part 107 regulations.

These announcements come as the Uniform Law Commission (ULC), a committee organized by states without the federal government, seeks to harmonize tort (liability) laws relating to drones throughout the states by defining exclusive airspace under 200 feet, an initiative opposed by the Department of Transportation (DoT) and the FAA.