The sUAS NPRM docket is full of comments—some useful, some not too helpful

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In the pre-electronic era, one would have to go to a room like this to read the 3,638 submissions filed in response to FAA’s NPRM titled Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. On the right is the vision which many UAS operators hold as to how their comments should have been delivered to the FAA Docket.

In the current internet environment, one can read all of these documents online (the above link will take you there). As noted before, the FAA’s notice included statements which indicated that they may be ready to revise their initial draft based on comments. The mere volume of these responses will require many person hours to review.

A substantial number of the documents filed are notes from individuals. The tone ranges from anti-regulation/libertarian diatribes (i.e. something like “If I don’t hurt anybody, leave me alone.”) to detailed, thoughtful comments in support of the proposed Part 107. The content of the individually written papers include

  • privacy concerns,
  • economic arguments against the FAA’s impact calculations,
  • assertions that the strictures of Part 107 will force innovators out of the USA,
  • observations based on experience under a COA,
  • the fact that more people have been killed by unregulated golf carts than UAS,
  • a request that the UAS should have a minimum altitude imposed to protect against privacy, and
  • a myriad of other thoughts on the subject.

There are many, many form letters from the Academy of Model Aeronautics (including more than a few which still include the AMA instructions “[Insert personal introduction details such as: I am a [job]…”). These repetitive epistles will have no substantive impact and their volume will have almost no influence.

Having reviewed more than 10% of the comments, that sample contained am disproportionate numbers from the AMA campaign. Consequently, one must refer to trade press reports of the major party comments. Here are a number of highlights from manufacturers, major commercial operators and associations (below in order of these notes are the corresponding articles/comments):

  • GAMA: this group represents the aircraft most likely to fly in proximity to the UASs and the association emphasizes separation of sUAS from aircraft in their comments.
  • APPA, EEI and NRECA : these associations represent the companies/authorities which would use UAS to examine their power lines and towers. Their support of this view is primarily that the use of these aircraft would increase the safety of their inspection crews and the efficiency of these operations. Basically they argue that their members should not be bound by Part 107 and did little to demonstrate an equivalent level of safety.

  • SBA: this specialized entity within the federal government is an advocate for small businesses. Its central theme was established early in its commentsAdvocacy recommends that FAA carefully consider any comments it receives from small business and incorporates those concerns in any final rule.” It then points out a number of criticisms which in summary assert that the FAA must reconsider its basic regulatory analysis and substitute a risk-based decision.

  • Newspaper Association of America: the NAA’s members received early relief from the FAA to test how the UAS aircraft might operate at news scenes. The comments argued for a new category of UAS; a micro class of vehicles of 4.4 pounds or less. NAA also recommends that flights over people unattached to the operators should be allowed, their sUAS be permitted to fly at night and they have authority to fly beyond the operator’s line of sight. The article does not cite any procedures proposed by NAA or facts cited by the association which would mitigate the relevant risks.
  • Amazon: the most vocal commercial critic of Part 107 and the recipient of not one, but two, grants of §333 exemptions, argued against almost every restriction proposed by the FAA. It asserted that the FAA analytical tool should be performance-based and assumes that such logic will free the company to fly packages over people beyond the line of sight. The Hill article did not mention any data or findings which the aggressive innovator has gained during its testing. Its most substantive argument is that the FAA’s regulatory constraints will drive Prime Air and other companies seeking to expand this technology to other easier countries.
  • Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI): This group has been clear that  the NPRM should be issued more quickly and once promulgated, criticizing the restrictions found in proposed Part 107. To set the stage for their section-by-section comments, AUVSI said “[s]ince the publication of the NPRM, AUVSI staff and members have been collaborating with technical and industry leaders to provide the most comprehensive and well-researched feedback to the FAA. Based on our exhaustive analysis, AUVSI, its members and the two million jobs they represent urge that the final rule take on a risk-based, technology-neutral approach to approving operations.”  From that premise, their thoughtful replies were 100% negative on the 15 sections cited (the NPRM has 39 sections). In a Congress Blog published in The Hill, the President of AUVSI states that the FAA “draft rules are a good first step, but regulations need to go further and put in place a regulatory framework that allows for future innovation. We need to finalize these rules quickly and on a parallel track, lay the groundwork for beyond line of sight so that we can achieve the FAA’s goal of creating the most flexible UAS regulatory system in the world.” Bluntly put “start all over again” is what the association wants.
  • AinOnline: the author summarized the comments of Small UAV Coalition (Google, DJI, Parrot, 3D Robotics, camera supplier GoPro) to the FAA and of CTIA-The Wireless Association, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, the National Association of Realtors, the News Media Coalition of national media outlets and the Newspaper Association of America to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The salient point made was that the “interests has suggested more than 20 revisions” to the NPRM.
  • Experimental Aircraft Association: this group of flyers, which represents some of the most adventuresome aviators, submitted thoughts about the need to separate the UAS from manned aircraft. Indicative of their members’ big concerns about enforcement actions, EAA requested that the FAA not be allowed to cite any Part 107 violations in any Part 91 (or any other certificate based FAR) complaint or file.
  • NBAA: though the association of business aviation participated in the UAS ARC, it submitted 63 separate comments. It agreed with most of the NPRM’s provisions, but urged, for example, that the maximum altitude be lowered to 400’ AGL to maintain separation from GA aircraft. It also made technical comments such as the sUAS operator should not be using the same frequencies as manned aircraft.  It wisely pointed out that the FAA should be ready to respond to the rapidly evolving technology.

That is but a sampling of the thousands of electronic pages submitted. The FAA staff will have to summarize the public’s input, assess what points merit further analysis and then revise the original draft to reflect any changes. That is not all that the regulators must do; any different rule must be run through the host of OMB regulatory tests, a time consuming task. Those exercises are time-consuming.

If, however, as urged by the SBA, AUVSI and Amazon (plus others), the FAA agrees to abandon its draft Part 107 and to adopt their preferred risk-based analysis (some would argue that the UAS ARC did use such an approach), the gestation period would be 24 months at a minimum.
The process will now not be conducted in public. The FAA staff, managers and executives will spend long hours considering the emerging technology, the agency’s ability to surveil/enforce the rules and SAFETY. What was very surprising about the comments submitted was the dearth of numbers and procedures which would insure that the proposed amendment would provide an equal or better level of safety. Many of their arguments against the proposed Part 107 were in terms of economics, technology benefits, better business practices and at best the increased safety of their operations  which will be supplanted by the UAS flights (clearly a plus, but the aviation risks were not addressed).

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