Protecting Infrastructure and Innovation under Section 2209 of the FAA Extension

On July 15, 2016, Congress enacted the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act (the “Act”), which among other things, directs the Secretary of Transportation to establish a process to enable applicants to petition the FAA Administrator to “prohibit or restrict the operation of an unmanned aircraft in close proximity to a fixed site facility.”  Congress tasked the FAA with establishing a process for designating fixed site facilities no later than 180 days from the date of enactment.  Below is an outline of the key problematic provisions in Section 2209 and a proposed path forward for establishing a process that meets the Congressional directive while not unnecessarily restricting industry.  

Section 2209 outlines the following criteria that the FAA may consider in determining whether to grant or deny an application for designation of a fixed site facility: (i) aviation safety, (ii) protection of persons and property on the ground, (iii) national security, or (iv) homeland security.  Subsection 2209 (b)(1)(C) further provides that only the following facilities may be considered for designation:

(i)             Critical infrastructure, such as energy production, transmission, and distribution facilities and equipment.

(ii)           Oil refineries and chemical facilities.

(iii)         Amusement parks.

(iv)          Other locations that warrant such restrictions.

Subsection 2209 (b)(1)(C) attempts to restrict the types of locations that would be subject to designation, however certain portions of the text undermine that goal.  Categories (i) and (ii) are generally reasonable as they outline a list of infrastructure and facilities that by their nature may create an environment that could increase the risk profile of UAS operations from a facility safety, national security or homeland security perspective.  However, since subsection (i) does not offer a closed definition of “critical infrastructure”, it could be construed too broadly.  The FAA should clarify the types of facilities that are considered critical infrastructure by providing a closed definition.  This clarification would help applicants understand whether their facility could be considered for designation and it would reduce the administrative burden of processing applications for facilities that the FAA does not consider to fall under the definition. 

Category (iii) – amusement parks – appears out of place in relation to the first two categories.  Amusement parks do not appear to raise special concerns from an aviation safety, national security or homeland security perspective.  Nor do they typically raise unique concerns in terms of potential damage to property or persons in the same way that critical infrastructure or chemical facilities do.  The risks to property or persons for UAS operations taking place near amusement parks are generally covered under Part 107 through provisions such as the restriction on flight over people who are not a part of the operation.  

Finally, category (iv) “other locations that warrant such restrictions” is very broad and opens the door to expanding the list of fixed site facilities well beyond the types of locations that the drafters intended to protect.  A broad construction will not only unnecessarily restrict the industry, it will also run the risk of leading to uneven results for applicants seeking to protect their facilities.  The FAA should establish a closed list of other types of locations that may be considered for designation.

Section 2209 incorporates a savings clause which states that, “nothing in this section may be construed as prohibiting the Administrator from authorizing operation of an aircraft, including an unmanned aircraft system, over, under, or within a specified distance from that fixed site facility designated under subsection (b).”  The framework established by the FAA to implement Section 2209 should incorporate a waiver process in line with that provided in Part 107 that will allow applicants to fly in proximity to fixed site facilities if they show that they can mitigate the risks of the operation to an acceptable level. 

The process set up by the FAA should also acknowledge that operators may go directly to any designated fixed site facility to seek permission from the owner to operate UAS over the facility.  Incorporating this mechanism will serve to minimize the administrative burden on the FAA in granting waivers from the general restriction on flying UAS in proximity to designated sites.

Lastly, the applications for designation should be publicly posted in the Federal Register so that the FAA may consider public comments prior to making a determination whether to grant or deny applications.      

 

How Canada Handles Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight Drone Operations

The FAA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) proposes to restrict operations that are completed beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS). However, the FAA has invited comments regarding the proposed BVLOS restriction.

In Canada, BVLOS operations are not yet mainstream, however they are attainable under the Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) system. Transport Canada’s Staff Instruction 623-001 establishes the following conditions for BVLOS operations:

• BVLOS flights cannot take place outside of restricted airspace, unless the operator can mitigate risk to an acceptable level i.e. through the use of ground-based radar
• BVLOS flights must not be conducted over populated areas
• BVLOS flights must be conducted in visual meteorological conditions
• BVLOS flights cannot be conducted within controlled airspace
• BVLOS flights can only be conducted within 5 nautical miles of the point of departure
• The take-off and landing/recovery must be conducted within visual line-of-sight
• Direct radio line-of-sight capability must be maintained throughout the operating area

Canada is not alone in having established conditions for BVLOS operations. In fact, quite a few jurisdictions have more advanced regulations for BVLOS operations, including Australia, Colombia, Czech Republic, France, Israel and Poland. As stakeholders submit comments to the FAA over the next two months, it’s important to look at how other jurisdictions are managing risk in BVLOS operations.

Canada’s Approach to Risk Management for Nighttime Drone Flights

The FAA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) limits SUAS operations to daylight hours. The FAA concedes that the restriction on nighttime flights may negatively impact the ability to use SUAS in northern regions such as Alaska that have very few hours of daylight during winter months. The FAA has invited stakeholders to comment on how risk may be mitigated in the course of nighttime operations. Here is a breakdown of the Canadian approach to risk management for nighttime flights…

In Canada, nighttime operations are possible under the Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) system. Transport Canada’s Staff Instruction 623-001 outlines the following conditions for nighttime operations:

• If the UAV has lights, the lights must be on during night flights
• If the UAV does not have lights, there must be a means of illumination that would enable visual contact with the UAV
• The crew must have a portable emergency light source available
• The pilot must not have visual limitation of depth perception, colour blindness or problems seeing at night
• Visual observers providing the sense and avoid function (i.e. where the pilot is using FPV) cannot use night vision goggles

Transport Canada further states that if light emitting diodes (LEDs) are used to satisfy the lighting requirement for nighttime operations, the LEDs must have sufficient intensity to enable the pilot or visual observer and other airspace users to have visual contact with the UAV.

FAA Regulations Draw Inspiration from Canada, But Miss Key Aspect

Various aspects of the anticipated proposed small UAS (sUAS) regulations that were released by the FAA today draw inspiration from Canada’s approach to regulation. In fact, the FAA provides a handy comparison chart on pgs. 55-56. The Canadian comparison is limited to Canada’s new exemptions for sUAS. Canada’s exemptions operate very differently than FAA exemptions, as they do not require approval from our regulator, Transport Canada. If you meet the requirements of either of our two exemptions, you can operate without applying for a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC). SFOC allow for broader applications than what is shown in the FAA comparison chart, including FPV and beyond visual line of sight.

Practicing in the Canadian jurisdiction, I believe that one of the most valuable aspects of our system is its flexibility and the fact that the system rewards safe operators. For instance, in Canada, first time SFOC applicants are typically rewarded narrow certificates in terms of time, geography and level of operational risk. As operators develop a track record of conducting safe operations, they are able to receive ‘standing certificates’ allowing them to operate for up to three years over large regions of the country.

The FAA should consider adopting a similar approach that rewards safe operators by allowing them to complete less restrictive operations. For instance, the proposed rules state that operators would not be able to fly over persons not involved in the operation. If an operator has a good track record of conducting safe flights, there is no reason why the FAA should not consider removing this burden.

As the FAA crafts its final regulations, it is important to find ways to build flexibility into the system, and to not only focus on punishing irresponsible behavior but also rewarding safe operators.

Summary of the FAA’s Proposed Drone Regulations

This morning the FAA held a conference call to announce its highly anticipated small UAS (sUAS) regulations. Sunday morning might strike as odd timing, however it’s likely that the timing had to do with the leak of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Regulatory Evaluation, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which I wrote about on here yesterday. Below is a summary of the critical aspects of the proposed regulations from the FAA summary (the proposed rules have not been made available at the time of writing).

Operational Limitations

• UAS must be under 55lbs
• UAS must be operated within visual line of sight
• FPV is not permitted
• Operator must not fly over people not involved in the operation
• Daylight operations only
• Maximum speed of 87 knots
• Maximum altitude 500 feet AGL
• A single person cannot act as an operator for more than one UAS operation at a time

Operator Certification and Responsibilities
• Operators must pass an aeronautical test
• Operators must obtain an sUAS operating certificate

Aircraft Requirements
• Airworthiness is NOT required
• Aircraft markings required

Model Aircraft
• Proposed rule would not apply to model aircraft
• Proposed rule would codify the FAA’s enforcement authority in respect of model aircraft operators who are endangering the safety of the national airspace

Some of the items that are not addressed in the FAA summary which I am particularly interested in are: (1) whether the proposed rules allow a single person to operate a fleet of drones within the same operation, and (2) what the TSA security clearance check will entail.

Possible Leaked FAA Document Provides Hints Regarding Proposed Rulemaking for sUAS

A new document purporting to be prepared by the FAA Office of Aviation Policy and Plans provides hints regarding the anticipated proposed small UAS (sUAS) regulations. The possible leaked document is dated February 2015 and is titled “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Regulatory Evaluation, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” The document’s authenticity has not been established, however assuming that the document is authentic, here are some of the more noteworthy insights into the upcoming proposed regulations…

Line of Sight in Daylight Below 500 ft

The FAA proposes that operators must fly within visual line of sight. The document states that at this time “there is no acceptable technological substitute for direct human vision.” The document also proposes that operators are only permitted to fly between sunrise and sunset. The rationale provided for this requirement is that sUAS will be flying at low altitudes and flying at night would make it difficult to see people on the ground. The proposed rule requires operators of sUAS to operate below 500 ft. The logic behind this ceiling height restriction is that manned aircraft generally operate above 500 ft.

sUAS Registration Requirements, No Airworthiness

Each sUAS would have to be registered with the FAA. Registration would cost around $5 and would have to be renewed every three years. According to the document, the FAA Aircraft Registration database would enable the FAA and the public to identify registered owners and operators. The document states that “this information is necessary for FAA Aviation Safety Inspectors to perform their routine checks or to investigate an incident or accident.” Although sUAS would have to be registered, airworthiness compliance would not be imposed. Because sUAS pose a lower risk to people and property, the document provides that airworthiness compliance “would not result in significant safety benefits.”

No Pilot’s License but Requires Knowledge Test and Operator Certificate

A pilot’s license would not be required to operate sUAS. The document admits that the “training, testing, proficiency and experience requirements for obtaining a commercial pilot’s license have limited relevance to the nature of small UAS operations.” Instead, operators would have to pass a test demonstrating aeronautical knowledge and would be required to obtain a small UAS operating certificate from the FAA. The test would take roughly 3 hours to complete.

TSA Security Threat Determination

According to the document, the “TSA would [need] to determine if the operators pose a security threat. The TSA considers someone to be a security threat when he or she is known to pose or is suspected of posing a threat to national security, to transportation security, or of terrorism.” The estimated cost of a security threat determination is $130 per applicant. Although the proposed rule does not impose this fee on the operator, the document states that “at some point in the future these costs may be passed directly to the operator.”

Physical Capacity Certification

The document provides that sUAS applicants would have to certify that they have “no physical or mental condition that could interfere with the safe operation of a small UAS.”

Alternative Approaches

Finally, the document reveals alternative approaches that the FAA considered in the rulemaking process. For instance, the FAA considered parsing sUAS into subcategories based on weight, operational characteristics and operating environment. The FAA dispensed with this approach as it was deemed too burdensome. However, the FAA is apparently considering a micro sUAS rule for UAS under 2kg that meet certain operational parameters including operating at less than 30 knots below 400 ft within line of sight without use of FPV. Under the micro sUAS classification, the operator would not have to complete the knowledge test however a micro sUAS operating certificate would be required.