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FAA UAS Regulations: Navigating the Skies of Drone Operation and Beyond (Part 1)

Updated: May 19

FAA Drone Illustration

FAA UAS Regulations: Navigating the Skies of Drone Operation and Beyond (Part 1)

This post is structured into "Part 107" and "Beyond Part 107." It is an integral series dedicated to dissecting and comparing drone regulations by two major aviation authorities: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).


In the "Part 107" section, we delve into the rules and guidelines established by the FAA for drone operations within the United States, covering the essentials that operators must adhere to for compliance and safety.


The "Beyond Part 107" segment explores the avenues available to drone operators/manufacturers (OEMs) seeking to expand their operational scope beyond the limitations of Part 107. This includes a closer look at the strategic options such as FAA Exemption 44807 and the Durability and Reliability (D & R) Type Certification process, offering insight into how operators can navigate the evolving regulatory landscape for more complex drone operations.


Following this post, the series will continue with an analysis of EASA drone regulations and then provide a comparative view highlighting the nuances and key differences between the FAA's and EASA's approaches to drone regulation. This series aims to equip drone operators, enthusiasts, and industry stakeholders with a thorough understanding of the regulatory environments on both sides of the Atlantic, fostering informed compliance and promoting the safe, innovative use of drone technology in various operational contexts.


An Overview of FAA Part 107 Regulations for Drone Operations

The advent of drone technology has introduced a new frontier in aviation, blending innovation with practical applications ranging from aerial photography to infrastructure inspection. Recognizing the burgeoning role of drones in commercial operations, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has set guidelines under Part 107 regulations. This framework is designed to facilitate the safe and efficient use of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) while ensuring the protection of national airspace and public safety.


Unlocking the Skies: The Path to Part 107

To pilot a drone for commercial purposes under FAA Part 107, individuals must meet several eligibility requirements, including being at least 16 years old and passing an aeronautical knowledge exam. Successful certification allows for the operation of drones weighing less than 55 lbs at or below 400 feet above ground level, strictly within the operator's visual line of sight.


Operational Guidelines and Limitations

Part 107 delineates specific operational limits to mitigate risks associated with drone flights, particularly concerning proximity to people and visibility conditions. Key regulations include:


  • General operations over individuals not directly participating in the operation are prohibited, though waivers are available under certain conditions or meeting some of the categories defined below.

  • Require adequate lighting.

  • Pilots must be aware of and comply with airspace restrictions, utilizing the FAA's LAANC system for authorization in controlled airspace.

  • Continuous visual contact with the drone is mandatory, emphasizing the safety of the operation.


Amendments and Innovations: Operations Over Human Beings

A significant amendment to Part 107, effective January 15, 2021, introduced regulations for drone operations over people, categorized based on the level of risk posed. These range from Category 1, allowing drones weighing 0.55 pounds or less to operate under specific conditions, to Category 4, which applies to drones with an FAA-issued airworthiness certificate and adheres to more stringent requirements.


Category 1 Operations

  • Involves small UAS weighing 0.55 pounds or less, including everything on board or attached.

  • The UAS must not have exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin.

  • Restrictions apply to sustained flight over open-air assemblies unless specific conditions are met.


Category 2 Operations

  • Requires the UAS to be eligible for Category 2 operations, listed on an FAA-accepted declaration of compliance, and labeled for Category 2 operations.

  • The UAS must be designed to ensure it won’t cause injury with more than 11 foot-pounds of kinetic energy upon impact and doesn't have exposed rotating parts that could lacerate the skin.

  • Operational, labeling, and product support requirements are specified for applicants and remote pilots.


Category 3 Operations

  • Like Category 2, it is designed for operations that may cause injury equivalent to or less than 25 foot-pounds of kinetic energy upon impact.

  • Additional restrictions on operating over open-air assemblies and requirements for operation over people under certain conditions.

  • Includes labeling, instruction, and product support requirements like those in Category 2.

Category 4 Operations

  • For UAS with an airworthiness certificate issued under part 21.

  • Must be operated according to the limitations specified in the Flight Manual or by the Administrator.

  • Comprehensive maintenance, preventive maintenance, and alteration requirements are outlined, including record-keeping and compliance with parts 43 and 91.

Operations Over Moving Vehicles

  • Specifies conditions under which UAS can operate over humans in moving vehicles, with requirements varying by operation category.

The FAA Safety Continuum – Beyond Part 107

The FAA Safety Continuum is a framework the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) uses to categorize and manage the safety oversight of various aviation operations, including those involving Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drones. This continuum reflects a scalable approach to regulation and oversight, acknowledging that not all aviation activities carry the same level of risk and do not require the same level of regulatory scrutiny.


Thus, the FAA has developed two possible paths: the FAA Exemption 44807 and Durability and Reliability (D&R) Type Certification. The FAA Safety Continuum plays a crucial role in understanding how the FAA adapts its regulatory and oversight mechanisms to accommodate the evolving landscape of drone operations. In the evolving landscape of drone regulations, operators looking to expand beyond the confines of Part 107 face a period of regulatory uncertainty, particularly when considering the operational paths following FAA Exemption 44807 and the D&R Type Certification process. The specific policies and guidelines regarding these pathways are still under development, leaving operators in a state of anticipation regarding how to navigate these options effectively.


  1. FAA Exemption 44807: This exemption allows operators to conduct operations without needing a type-certificated aircraft, providing a potential avenue for activities that might not strictly adhere to the established norms of Part 107. However, the exact operational scope and limitations permissible under this exemption remain unclear, as the FAA has not fully articulated the policy framework that will govern these activities. Operators interested in pursuing this exemption are advised to stay informed of regulatory updates and engage with the FAA to understand the evolving compliance landscape.

  2. D&R Type Certification: Pursuing a Type Certification under the D&R process represents another pathway for operators and the OEM. While this route emphasizes the drone systems' safety, durability, and reliability, the process has taken so long that the FAA developed the Criteria for Making Determination under Exemption 44807.


In navigating the complex regulatory landscape for drone operations, the FAA's current approach of evaluating Exemption 44807 and the D&R Type Certification on a case-by-case basis introduces uncertainty that can be challenging for businesses. This method allows the FAA to learn and adapt its policies incrementally, assessing each application individually to ensure safety and compliance within the National Airspace System (NAS). However, this tailored approach, while beneficial for accommodating a wide range of innovative drone operations and truly understanding the safety continuum, can also create ambiguity regarding the specific criteria and expectations that operators and the OEM must meet.

 

Criteria for Making Determination Steps:

The criteria for making determinations under the current regulatory framework present a strategic, phased approach to accessing airspace. This methodology allows for incremental adjustments and adaptations in a manner that traditional certification processes might not facilitate. By adopting a case-by-case evaluation method, these criteria aim to enable more flexible integration of drones into the airspace. This flexibility is valuable for addressing unique operational needs and testing new technologies under controlled conditions, ensuring safety while accommodating innovation.


  • The FAA assesses whether the drone demonstrates a level of durability and reliability comparable to what would be expected in the Durability and Reliability type certification process. This involves evaluating the drone's design, construction, and maintenance processes to ensure it can operate safely over its intended lifespan without undue risk of failure. This could be done in a phased approach to unlock higher opportunity areas for operators by allowing stepped changes to configuration while maintaining strict configuration control.

  • The assessment includes determining appropriate operational limitations for the drone. These limitations might pertain to factors such as maximum altitude, distance from the operator, operational areas, and conditions under which the drone can be flown (e.g., weather conditions).

  • The criteria also consider the qualifications of operators to safely pilot the drones. These might include training, experience, and knowledge of aviation safety principles and practices relevant to the proposed operations.

  • The evaluation looks at the drone's system capabilities, including its communication and control systems, to ensure they are robust and reliable enough for the proposed operations. This can also involve the drone's ability to safely manage or mitigate in-flight issues without harming people or other aircraft.

  • Aircraft maintenance and associated elements are evaluated as well.

  • Finally, the criteria assess the risk mitigation measures that the operator will implement. These measures are designed to minimize the potential for accidents or incidents and their impact on people, property, and other airspace users.

Type Certification Durability and Reliability

The FAA uses exemption 44807, which does not mean the applicant cannot use the type certificate process for the D&R.


The FAA Type Certificate process under 21.17(b) and the focus on Durability and Reliability for drones are crucial in ensuring that drones, or UAS, meet rigorous safety and operational standards before being introduced into the National Airspace System (NAS).


FAA Type Certificate Process Under 21.17(b)

The Type Certificate (TC) signifies the FAA's approval of the design of an aircraft, engine, or propeller, indicating that the design meets the required safety and environmental standards. This process is vital for drones because it ensures the UAS design is safe for operation in various conditions and environments.


Under section 21.17(b) of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), the FAA outlines the procedure for obtaining a Type Certificate for special aircraft classes, including drones. This process is tailored for aircraft that do not fit the standard categories of airplanes, rotorcraft, gliders, etc., providing a pathway for certifying innovative or unconventional designs.


Durability and Reliability for Drones

Durability and Reliability are critical factors that the FAA considers during the Type Certificate process, especially for drones, given their unique operational environments and challenges. Durability refers to the ability of the UAS to withstand the physical demands of operation over time without significant degradation in performance or safety. On the other hand, reliability refers to the UAS's ability to perform its intended functions under stated conditions for a specified period.


To demonstrate Durability and Reliability, the applicant must:

  • Conduct testing includes stress tests, flight tests, and simulations to evaluate how the UAS responds to physical stresses, environmental factors, and operational demands.

  • Provide post-test results and evidence that the UAS design can achieve the expected lifespan with high reliability and minimal risk of failure or safety issues.

  • Implement quality assurance processes that ensure that each UAS produced under the Type Certificate will meet the same durability and reliability standards as the tested prototype.

The focus on Durability and Reliability ensures that drones certified by the FAA are safe for widespread use, reducing the risk of accidents or failures that could pose hazards to people, property, and other aircraft in the NAS.


Conclusion

In conclusion, navigating the intricacies of drone regulations under the FAA and EASA presents a multifaceted challenge for operators looking to leverage this technology across a spectrum of applications. From the foundational guidelines of Part 107 to the expansive possibilities beyond, the FAA offers pathways that accommodate growth and innovation while prioritizing airspace safety.


As this series progresses, comparing the FAA's and EASA's regulatory landscapes reveals contrasts and commonalities, underscoring a shared commitment to safety, security, and the responsible development of drone technology. The analysis of EASA regulations, juxtaposed with the FAA's framework, highlights the importance of understanding regional nuances in regulatory compliance, which is crucial for operators working or planning to operate in transatlantic environments.


Exploring options beyond Part 107, including FAA Exemption 44807 and the D&R Type Certification, points to a regulatory environment that is evolving in response to technological advancements and operational needs. While these pathways offer opportunities for expanded drone use, they also introduce elements of uncertainty that can impact business planning and scalability. This underscores the need for operators to remain informed, adaptable, and engaged with regulatory developments.


Ultimately, the series aims to provide drone operators and stakeholders with a comprehensive understanding of the regulatory requirements, opportunities, and challenges in the United States and the European Union. As the drone industry continues to evolve, staying informed and proactive in regulatory compliance will be key to harnessing the full potential of drone technology safely and effectively, fostering innovation while ensuring the safety of the skies for all.

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