FAA’s sUAS Pathfinder needs parameters NOW in order to provide a basis for any Part 107 revisions

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On February 15, 2015 Secretary Foxx and Administrator Huerta announced the issuance of an NPRM, Part 107, which proposed the terms by which Small UAS commercial operators could fly. Since then, the UAS industry has put great pressure on the FAA to do more to advance their business. On May 6, 2015, the Administrator appeared at AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems 2015 conference and announced a new program Pathfinder.

What did the Administrator really do?

Since the February DoT/FAA press conference, there has been a heavy dose of hubris expressed in the media. There are multiple articles attacking the FAA for not understanding the drone industry, while the critiques showed total disregard for what a safety agency may/should do. The FAA Rulemaking docket continued this trend with thousands of comments which viewed the policy debate myopically.

What does Pathfinder offer to the expectant drone industry—three tests in which the private partners will experiment, primarily on the Line-of-sight dimension which Part 107 presently requires. The FAA press release summarized the three projects as:

“Visual line-of-sight operations in urban areas
CNN will look at how UAS might be safely used for newsgathering in populated areas.

Extended visual line-of-sight operations in rural areas
This concept involves UAS flights outside the pilot’s direct vision. UAS manufacturer PrecisionHawk will explore how this might allow greater UAS use for crop monitoring in precision agriculture operations.

Beyond visual line-of-sight in rural/isolated areas
BNSF Railroad will explore command-and-control challenges of using UAS to inspect rail system infrastructure.”

What is missing from the press release are the precise parameters of these experiments. The publication of the criteria and the goals of these tests by the FAA is critical to the user community; for only by the sharing of this information will the non-participants be able to understand what Pathfinder is doing and forecast where, if any, amendments to the proposed Part 107 may be justified. Since these experiments will be cited in any amendments, transparency is critical.

By looking at the statements of the private Pathfinder partners, more can be garnered about what is supposed to happen and where the gaps may occur in these regulatory exercises.

In most situations, the CNN flights will be in cities over persons not directly involved in the newsgathering UAS operations. Will the Pathfinder rules obviate the requirements of proposed 14 CFR §107.19 (b), protecting against damage to persons and property in such an area? What defined goals, if any, demonstrate the success of the other than visual line-of-sight in urban areas? What does CNN have as guidance to determine if “undue hazard to other aircraft, people, or property in the event of a loss of control of the aircraft for any reason” exists? May the experiment include UAS operations after the official sunset and before the official sunset (14 CFR §107.29)? Not all newsworthy events are scheduled for daylight hours. Does the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRDA) establish a minimum number of flights operated in order to support a change in Part 107?

From a CNN press release, we do know that the FAA’s existing cooperation arrangement partnership with the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) will be expanded to include the CNN experiment. The news media company adds that “[t]he FAA will use data collected from this initiative to formulate a framework for various types of UAVs to be safely integrated into newsgathering operations.” That regulatory link will require that these test flights and their results be made public.

Another news source revealed that the FAA approved CNN to operate tethered UAVs for news-gathering purposes over urban areas. That’s interesting; does the tether make the flight safer? Can the sUAS be retracted by reeling it in via tether?

The Atlanta-based company’s senior vice president of legal made a statement which belies a sophisticated understanding of the CRDA and what Part 107 proposed. “If we’re certified, we don’t need their approval. That’s the end state we’re working toward. It’d be just like putting up a helicopter…Some of this will get made up as we go along.” In order to be permitted to fly, CNN’s pilots will have to get an FAA certificate pursuant to 14 CFR §107.13 and Subpart C (§§107. 53- 107.89), assuming that these draft rules are finally promulgated.  The sUAS aircraft and the company do not have to be certificated.

The engineering tests to be performed under the CRDA cannot be “made up as we go” in order to be cited as a decisional criteria to justify a change in Part 107 NPRM. The academics hopefully know what a CRDA requires in terms of proof.

PrecisionHawk’s public pronouncements are far more reassuring. First, it mentions that the company has extensive global agriculture experience. Second, it is noted that they will assess fixed wing and multi-rotor aircraft. Third, the scope will be agriculture, forestry and other rural industries. Perhaps most intriguing and exciting is the PrecisionHawk’s revelation that its tests will include:

“…LATAS (Low Altitude Tracking and Avoidance System) its traffic management system for UAVs. Testing will include on-aircraft transponders as well as LATAS traffic management ground-based hardware and software. By introducing an operational tracking system that works with any UAV platform, the FAA and PrecisionHawk can safely test operations beyond visual line of sight in low risk, ‘non-populated’ areas, such as farmland.”

And further…

“According to PrecisionHawk founder and president Ernest Earon, they will be working with the FAA to develop standards and operational procedures to allow for safe integration of drones in the National Airspace System. ‘This is something we’ve been working on for a very long time,’ said Earon in an interview with Precision.AgWired after the announcement. ‘Our goal is to really push forward the regulations and the use cases so we can as an industry take advantage of this technology and move it forward.’”

Again, it would be helpful to have greater public understanding what the gains which may come from the PrecisionHawk experiments. The company has added more dimensions, but sample size of flights, safety criteria, measures of merit and other information should be fully disclosed soon.

The BNSF press is not very informational. It said the recently announced partnership with FAA will “explore the challenges of using these vehicles to inspect [its] rail infrastructure beyond visual line-of-sight in isolated areas.”  The railroad’s experiment will determine the safety of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) sUAS flights. Train tracks stretch for miles and miles and the company’s use of these innovative aircraft to determine the safety of their rails.

What happens if the BNSF sUAS encounters unauthorized persons in the course of its experimental flights, will the flight have to be suspended? Is the field of vision of the sUAS camera sufficiently wide to detect “other persons”? If not, how will BNSF measure the risk to those individuals? The FAA’s  goal in this experiment appears to be gathering data to support a diminution or deletion of the line-of-sight found in the proposed 14 CFR §§ 107.31 and 107.33. What does the FAA require of BNSF to prove that BVLOS may be safely conducted over railroad tracks?

A third party, Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, also expressed concerns about the data to be developed by the Pathfinder exercise. Their members would like to test the use of sUAS so that their “companies can survey property damage after a disaster and help expedite claim adjustment to get settlement checks to policyholders sooner.”

Equally compelling are the comments of Carol Kreiling, senior claim manager with Swiss Re, who said

“The current dearth of [commercial drone] loss data makes it difficult for insurance companies to properly price insurance policies covering drone use,” Kreiling told Carrier Management via email. “It is therefore no surprise that only a handful of insurers actually issue standalone drone insurance coverage, such as Zurich Insurance in Canada, and Tokio Marine in the Lloyd’s of London market.”

The data to be collected by Pathfinder must be much more transparent BEFORE the program starts. Comments from other interested entities should be solicited. Access to the results should be made on a real time basis. Particularly, the FAA should establish publically what are the experimental thresholds which would justify change?

The FAA has created a network of test sites, a University Center of Excellence on UAS (Mississippi State) and 289 §333 exemption grants. What will be their roles? How is the data being integrated? Will any of the academic institutions be supporting the complex data integration (NOTE: if the CRDA does not specify how and what should be recorded, the synthesis of the numbers will be virtually impossible) and analysis?

It seems that Pathfinder is full of great potential, but needs some precise meets and bounds of what it intends to accomplish BEFORE the partners move down that path!

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