Updated: May 11
Dawn Zoldi - Contributor
I’m a U.S.-based advanced technology author, consultant and advocate
A report issued last week takes aim at rules that have been holding back the burgeoning $58.4 billion commercial drone market. The much anticipated Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) Final Report recommends an overhaul of existing regulations, and the creation of new ones, to enable industry scalability.
Current rules require commercial drone operators to fly their aircraft within their visual line of sight. They also limit remote pilots to operating one drone at a time. In practice, this translates into shorter drone flights, monitored by visual observers either on foot or in chase cars.
To bolster efficiencies, businesses must obtain time-consuming and rarely granted waivers. Since 2018, the FAA has issued only 86 BVLOS waivers out of the almost four thousand total granted. Many of these apply in the context of research and development (R&D) programs, as opposed to real world applications.
Yet, over the past few years, the benefits of BVLOS drone operations have been repeatedly proven. Improved effectiveness, cost avoidance and increased safety rank high among them. Estimates indicate that BVLOS drone bridge inspections alone could save state departments of transportation $560 million annually. Drones alleviate the need for dangerous manual high-altitude operations that employ heavy and accident-prone ground vehicles. Manual inspections shut down highways for, on average, 8 hours at a time; a comparable drone inspection takes about an hour.
Recognizing the need for change, in June 2021, the FAA chartered the BVLOS ARC “to make recommendations to the FAA for performance-based regulatory requirements to normalize safe, scalable, economically viable, and environmentally advantageous UAS BVLOS operations that are not under positive air traffic control (ATC).”
The ARC membership list reads like a who’s who of key stakeholders. Aviation leaders Airbus, Wing and Skydio made the cut. Special interest groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Women in Aviation International and the African American Mayors Association had a seat at the table. State, local, tribal and territorial governments also provided representatives, including the high tech Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
Jon Damush, ARC member and CEO of Iris Automation, creators of Casia 360, the leading detect-and-avoid system for safe beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight operations, explained, "The BVLOS ARC was an amazing compilation of the industry leaders from all corners of aviation, from new entrants to our industry to legacy household names to community advocacy groups and labor unions. The ARC was divided into several working groups. These groups were dynamic and active. A great deal of time and effort was put in by everyone involved.”
To be exact, that effort involved nine months of effort; three more than originally planned. It culminated in the publication of a 400 plus page report, containing 70 recommendations. Topics ranged from flight rules, remote pilot qualifications, aircraft qualifications to remote air carrier and remote commercial operator requirements. (Detailed coverage from author here).
Key recommendations included that the FAA:
Use a flexible risk-based approach to BVLOS operations that takes into account air and ground risks and levels of automation. This starkly contrasts with the traditionally rigid one-size-fits-all approach to regulations.
Modify the right-of-way rules to give UAS priority over crewed aircraft in certain low level altitudes and locations (e.g. near critical infrastructure) and acknowledge unique UAS attributes, including autonomous tech (e.g. “detect” instead of “see” and avoid). These constitute significant changes to the status quo. Today, UA must always yield the right-of-way to crewed aircraft.
Update operator licenses to include some of these BVLOS operations as part of the current remote pilot license and to create two new ratings, Remote Air Carrier and Remote Operating certificates. The latter would enable commercial 1-to-many operations. All of this would alleviate the need for one-off waivers and routinize BVLOS flights.
Create a new “BVLOS Rule” for UA aircraft and associated equipment certification of vehicles up to 800,000 ft-lb of kinetic energy. Currently, the FAA has not issued an airworthiness certificate to any UA manufacturer. The FAA does this by exception to various rules written for general aviation.
Adopt a non-mandatory regulatory scheme for third party service providers (3PSP) that would support UAS BVLOS operations. As ATC will not be involved in managing low altitude air operations, this opens up potentially lucrative opportunities for private companies, such as T-Mobile and Verizon/Skyward, to play a key role in facilitating drone flights.
The recommendations were not unanimous. Damush elaborated, “There are areas of disagreement, as you might expect for such a wide reaching and complex task. Iris does not agree with all of the recommendations, but does agree that all involved share a common goal of integrating uncrewed aircraft into the national airspace safely and efficiently. We all recognize the benefits of uncrewed aircraft to our country and its citizens. There is much work to be done, but the commitment by industry and the FAA to the BVLOS ARC is a good sign and a welcome step forward."
The work that now must be done includes the FAA mulling over whether or not it will engage in the formal rule-making process to implement some of these recommendations. Many industry leaders hope to see expeditious regulatory movement from the FAA, to provide a path to long-term industry viability and sustainability, Lisa Ellman, Executive Director, Commercial Drone Alliance, and an industry lead of the BVLOS ARC, said, “Technology has moved quickly forward, while outdated regulations have lagged behind. The safety, economic and sustainability benefits of UAS cannot be fully realized for the American public without a regulatory framework that safely enables scalable BVLOS operations. The ARC report is a critical first step to maintaining US global leadership in aviation. The Commercial Drone Alliance looks forward to collaborating with stakeholders as the FAA works to implement the recommendations in a timely way.”
Michael Robbins, Executive Vice President of Government and Public Affairs at the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of unmanned systems and robotics agrees. He said, “Commercial drone operations provide essential services to the American public, including delivering life-saving medicines and conducting critical infrastructure inspection. To fully realize these benefits, the FAA must continue the momentum of the BVLOS ARC Report by advancing a rulemaking process and updating the regulatory framework to provide a pathway for these operations and the economic, societal, workforce, and environmental benefits that will follow.”
Even so, the process to create a new regulation, on average, takes about two years. One of the FAA’s recent forays into rulemaking involved a rule on the remote identification (RID) of drones. The rule requires all drones over 0.55 pounds registered with the FAA to have an electronic license plate to broadcast message elements, such as the drone and operator location, to both the public and law enforcement.
The RID rule process kicked off in December of 2019. After receiving 53,000 comments, the FAA published the final rule in January 2021. Implementation starts this year, when drone manufacturers have to include RID capabilities in production by September. Drone operators will have to fly RID-compliant drones in September of next year.
However, the RID process has become more complicated than usual. The FAA remains mired in litigation over the RID rule. RaceDayQuads, an Orlando, Florida-based multimillion-dollar e-commerce shop that caters to the first-person view (FPV) drone-racing clients, has challenged the rule on constitutional and procedural grounds. (See prior coverage here). In December 2015, the parties engaged in oral arguments before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. While that ruling remains pending, the viability of the RID hangs in the balance.
Regardless of the RID lawsuit outcome and any lessons learned from that process, the FAA could immediately bolster the commercial drone industry by implementing the ARC’s risk-based approach and fast-tracking BVLOS waivers now. If it does, the industry can finally accelerate…and be ready for liftoff.