Micro Drone Regulation
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) established an aviation rulemaking committee (PDF) with industry stakeholders to develop recommendations for a regulatory framework for micro drones. The purpose of this ARC was to define SAFE parameters to allow certain UAS to be operated over people who are not directly involved in the operation of the aircraft. The Committee was charged with establishing a more flexible, performance-based approach for these operations than what was considered for Micro UAS.
The committee delivered its recommendations to the FAA Administrator, after about 30 days’ work, on April 1 (or so). An AP reporter wrote that she obtained a copy of the confidential report (the purported recommendations are summarized in the below table). Under the Charter of the Performance Standards and Requirements for Micro Unmanned Aerial Systems, the advice of the ARC may be accepted, modified or rejected by the FAA.
|Category||Max. Wt.||Risk Cert.||Opt Limit|
|One||NMT 1/2 pound||1% chance of serious injury at maximum force of impact||Unrestricted over people and crowds|
|Two||4 -5 pounds||1% chance of serious injury at maximum force of impact||Over people but must maintain a distance of at least 20 feet vertically and 10 feet laterally.|
|Three||4 -5 pounds||30% or less chance of serious injury at maximum force impact||Not be flown over crowds or in densely populated areas, but could be flown over people in a closed or restricted work site.|
|Four||4 -5 pounds||30% or less chance of serious injury at maximum force impact||Allowed sustained flight over dense populations under strict regulation, including the development of flight risk plans and safety certifications administered by the FAA.|
The government/private industry “task force” was co-chaired by Earl Lawrence, Director, Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration and Nancy Egan, General Counsel at 3D Robotics. The remainder of the Advisory Group was drawn from a list of UAS OEMs, users, operators, UAS associations, aviation/aerospace associations, and ASTM. The charter given by the FAA pointed the members to very specific tasks.
The AP report indicates that the Air Line Pilots Association objected to the report’s lack of requirement that the operators of drones must be subjected to strict testing and background checks. The article intimated that others may have shared this opposition.
The essence of the reported performance standards is that the risks associated with each size/likelihood/severity of harm.
- The smallest UASs (less than ½ pound) would be permitted to be flown over crowds IF the manufacturer “certified” that their product had a less than 1% risk of serious injury at maximum force.
- The 2nd class, which is limited to 4-5 pounds (the charter had an upper limit of 4.4 pounds), would be certified to the same 1% standards, but must fly at least 20’ (that is not a typo) vertically and 10’ laterally above crowds.
- The last two categories have same weight standard (4-5#) and both have a certification risk standard of 30%.
- Category 3 would be restricted to operations away from crowds and densely populated areas—but could fly over a closed set.
- The last class would be authorized to fly in urban/congested areas if they proposed strict safety precautions and the FAA approved them.
It would be VERY interesting to see the work product of the ARC to come to these performance and risk criteria. The analytical work needed to support these numbers would seem to require some substantial calculations with multiple iterations of
- weather conditions,
- damage tolerance of people/property on the ground,
- UAS materials ability to inflict damage,
- altitudes/distances needed to avoid people/property on the ground,
- likelihood that UASs collisions/avoidance of collisions could generate greater forces/greater ability to inflict damage or that the collision alone could create other hazards (i.e. a crash might cause a camera lens to shatter and cut severely someone),
- plus a host of other possible scenarios creating substantial injury risks.
Those questions would seem relevant and answers to them predicates to setting these standards. It would be fascinating to see if the ARC estimated the probabilities of a 5 pound UAS, flying 20’ by 10” from a child at some speed would NOT injury him or her; have you ever been hit in the head by a 50 mph baseball?
The critical assumption is that risks could be calculated finitely and reliably to 10% or 30%. Serious injury is that term defined; and is any injury acceptable to an innocent bystander?
If the numerical computations of future likelihood of such harm are that reliable, what are the consequences to the company (individual) making that assessment? Does such “certification” put the manufacturer/individual LIABLE if a someone/something on the ground is injured? Or are damages started after some threshold of injuries (real time incidents > 1 %?). Injury by a drone to a person or property must probably results in a plaintiff suing the operator first; is the OEM expected to hold the buyer harmless due to design/manufacturing flaws? If not, disclosure of that risk to the buyer ought to be made before the sale. Does this safety rule create a new plaintiffs’ bar?
What stands behind this certification? Or is it just an empty gesture? If intended to be some surrogate protection for innocent bystanders, should not the certification be backed by insurance? How much coverage would be required and what level of financial assurance would be required to back it? Will the Secretary be compelled once again to require the dreaded registration months after the 1st proposal or will the $5 tariff be imposed ab inito? Micro drones must, by design, have microscopic registration numbers.
Did the ARC propose any guidelines for category 1-3 operations—beyond line of sight, night, weather, etc.? What training, if any, would be required? Like the absence in previous UAS proposals, are there any privacy considerations expressed? The smaller the drone, its stealth capability increases.
Enforcement (or even the current compliance assessment) will be verging on impossible. If, as predicted, the UAS fleet expand exponentially, the expectations that there is adequate inspectors to surveil these micro drones, flying literally from an infinite number of locations, will be minimal and thus the motivation of the pilots to meet these rules will be minimal. Once the micro is observed by some enforcement official, the visual acuity of an aircraft carrier Landing Safety Officer will be required to discern whether the UAS is flying at 10’ or even 18’.
Hopefully, the ARC in its less than 30 days of deliberation anticipated all of these relevant lines of questions and have provided acceptable rules. In all probability, as with the Registration ARC, the FAA will add or modify or delete or accept the proposed standards. If that finalization is not swiftly resolved, the worst option remains—some brilliant Congressional bill will define the rules for micro drone!!!