NPRM: A Valentine for Droners from the FAA

They probably didn’t plan on it that soon, but the Thurston document apparently let the cat out of the bag earlier than planned. In an unusual Sunday teleconference, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx made the public announcement to news media (and others, like us, who were able to obtain the conference call access number.) News conference audio.

“The public will be able to comment on the proposed regulation for 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register, which can be found at  Separate from this proposal, the FAA intends to hold public meetings to discuss innovation and opportunities at the test sites and Center of Excellence.

The comment period has now ended. The “real” NPRM bore a strong resemblance to the Thurston document that had briefly appeared on the Regulations.Gov web site earlier and was quickly removed:

  • A small UAS operator must always see and avoid manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away.
  • The operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.
  • A small UAS operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the UAS.
  • A small UAS may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.
  • Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph.
  • Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).

The complete NPRM document remains available for viewing at the Regulations.Gov web site. It’s too early to call these “new rules” because there could be extensive changes following the comment period, which has now closed.

The proposal does open the door for different levels of unmanned aircraft, with the inclusion of a suggestion for “micro UAS” designation, defined as UAVs weighing less than 4.4 pounds (2 kg). That classification would presumably include the popular DJI Phantoms and Parrot models but not the heavier octo-copters that might be used by film crews. The 55 lb top limitation presumably moves the fixed wing aircraft like the Predator, when converted to domestic use, into the realm of larger aircraft, requiring licensed pilots, ADS-B and flight plans (only a guess).

Some interesting details of the proposed rules include designation of UAV pilots as “operators”, while apparently retaining the “PIC” designation (Pilot In Command). As such, The change in terms solves the problem of revising all the rules relating to “pilots”, including 14CFR61.113. Operators” would be required to pass a knowledge test at an FAA testing center after security clearance from the Transportation Safety Administration, and to pass a recurrent test every 24 months to retain certification. The core of the drone operator written test might strongly resemble that of the current Sport Airplane (SPA) exam.

Drone aircraft would still be required to be registered with an N number markings for identification, but here would not be a requirement for airworthiness certification. Any accident that involves injury or property damage would require a report to the FAA within 10 days.  Model (hobby) aircraft would remain unrestricted by the proposed rules for commercial uses.

It is also stipulated that the adoption of these rules would codify the FAA’s enforcement authority by prohibiting model aircraft operators from endangering the safety of the National Air Space. This closes a presumed loophole for those who might do dumb things but claim the excuse of being “not commercial”.

One surprising proposal is to allow UAV operation in Class B, C, D and E airspace but only when specificallly permitted by Air Traffic Control by a C.O.A. Otherwise UAVs are restricted to Class G airspace, away from airports and other restricted areas, but without the need for ATC permission.

The medical issue is addressed with a voluntary self-imposed restriction that the operator may not fly if they have reason to know of a condition that would interfere with safe operation. No medical certificate would be required beyond that required for the specific certification (Private Pilot and above) of the operator or pilot.

One surprise is that under the designation of Micro-UAS option, operators would be allowed to fly over people not involved in the operation, provided the operator certifies that they have the requisite aeronautical knowledge to perform the operation… whatever that means. Another surprise is that a Visual Observer is suggested but would not be required. Oddly, that was something that had been recommended by some UAV associations.

At the same time, the White House issued a Presidential Memorandumconcerning transparency, accountability, and privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protections for the Federal Government’s use of UAS in the national airspace system which directs the initiation of a multi-stakeholder engagement process to develop a framework for privacy, accountability, and transparency issues concerning commercial and private UAS use. “

The adventure now enters into watch and wait phase as the flow of Section 333 Exemptions begins to increase.