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In the last year and a half, we have had the pleasure of working with several Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) air taxi manufacturers, and that experience allowed us to reach the conclusion that the advent of operational aerial taxis is closer than anyone might have imagined just a few years ago. There is much work to be done in several areas, but the industry is moving forward aggressively and with intent. Unmanned, pilotless flying cars and Aerial taxis primarily using electric propulsion systems will be flying, it’s that simple!
What’s NOT so simple is what must happen before George Jetson can climb in to his Gravi-Mobile and take the family out for a quick Spaceburger. Regardless of where in the world these vehicles intend to operate, they must successfully run the gamut of regulatory approvals, including type design, production, maintenance and continued operational safety, THEN they can be put into operation, which itself requires a separate regulatory compliance program.
These processes demand significant effort and will take time, patience and expertise to navigate. The current development of these aircraft is less about aerodynamics and inherent flying qualities, and almost all about automation and software. However, many UAS developers are not from the aviation industry.
Rather, these visionaries are entering aviation from a world that does not understand the intricacies of aviation regulatory compliance, thus a cultural shift is unavoidable and is certain to be a difficult transition. The time will come, in the very near future, for each UAS manufacturer to learn and understand the type certification requirements and begin the lengthy type certification process.
It is not reasonable for any UAS development program to have deep knowledge of technical and regulatory requirements such as flammability, passenger emergency egress, safety reporting programs and standard fleet management concepts. Likewise, it is not reasonable to expect the FAA, or any other regulatory authority, to have regulations in place for challenges such as pilotless operations or battery endurance whose total available power may not even meet the minimum fuel reserve requirements for day VFR operations.
In the United States, the FAA has been slow to move as quickly as the UAS industry desires. For example, in the March 30, 2015 edition of The Guardian, we find this statement; “Amazon is testing its drone delivery service at a secret site in Canada, following repeated warnings by the e-commerce giant that it would go outside the US to bypass what it sees as the US federal government’s lethargic approach to the new technology.”, a complaint that has been recently repeated. Despite industry wishes, the FAA will not simply step aside, but conversely, they will certainly come under increasing political pressure to provide guidance that will facilitate UAS certification and operations as soon as possible. The UAS industry will not be denied.
On the flip side, the FAA has recently published a proposed set of regulations for type certification of the Flightscan Camcopter S-100, a small autonomous rotorcraft (www.regulations.gov/document?D=FAA-2017-1058-0002) and has approved type designs for the Insitu ScanEagle X200 and AeroVironment Puma AE. In these cases, the FAA has proposed or imposed operational restrictions that are obviously intended to preserve the current level of public safety.
The Camcopter S-100, for example, is required to “. . . define and submit a concept of operations (CONOPS) proposal describing the intended UAS operation in the National Airspace System. The CONOPS must be accepted by the FAA.” The FAA design approval process is performing as intended, and we now have precedents that might be used for future type design approval programs.
Now, the challenge facing both the UAS industry and the FAA is one of finding common ground. The UAS industry is moving forward aggressively and they certainly have a strong desire to work with the FAA to assure safe operations, but many in the industry don’t have a firm grasp of FAA requirements. The FAA regulations are inherently designed to encourage but FAA processes can be agonizingly slow, especially with new technology as radical as a UAS.
We are now faced with several challenges:
1. Existing regulations don’t accommodate UAS technology,
2. There is an unavoidable but natural cultural gap between FAA and the UAS industry, and
3. FAA resources are severely stretched.
The first item requires action that is inherently government requirements, such as special conditions, equivalent levels of safety, exemptions, etc. The second and third challenges, however, can be eased with a combination of delegation and facilitation between industry and the FAA.
The FAA Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) program allows the FAA to delegate certain findings of compliance on their behalf to a company that holds an ODA. As a side benefit, the ODA can partner with the FAA to address the first item, improvements to regulations. Further, an ODA can explain FAA requirements in detail to a UAS manufacturer, and offer significant assistance in planning their certification programs. The FAA also has a designee program for individual specialists, but assembling a full team of specialists is challenging but doable; an ODA typically offers full service.
There is little question that the FAA will be directly involved in the first few large UAS projects such as air taxis and autonomous aircraft that weigh 55 pounds or more, as stated in 14 CFR Part 107, “Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems”. The must become familiar with the technology and understand what new regulations and policies should be developed as the UAS industry grows. Although the FAA strives to be as flexible and accommodating as possible, their primary accountability is to the flying public. The natural give and take that must occur between the FAA and each applicant will certainly be a daunting task for the uninitiated UAS designers who have never dealt with the FAA.
Any UAS designer who is contemplating FAA or EASA type and production certification, whether for private or commercial operations should consider the following:
1. Examine the proposed Airworthiness Criteria for the FlightScan Camcopter S-100 (see the FAA link above) as a model that is likely to be applied to future programs
2. Do everything possible to understand the regulations and how a UAS can be designed to comply with their intent. A key concept to keep in mind is that the type certification regulations are “minimum standards”. A good design will exceed those standards, but a design that is driven to the minimum standards may be no more than a minimum aircraft.
3. Get help. Find a person or organization who fully understands the type and production certification processes and who can facilitate all interactions with the FAA or your regulatory authority. Entry into service is another major challenge that is likely to require a completely different skill set. And,
4. Get involved. Stay engaged with other UAS designers and national/international organizations. Watch what the FAA and EASA are doing, through their UAS web pages. Pay careful attention to new regulations, exemptions and related activities:
a. FAA UAS web page is: www.faa.gov/uas/.
b. The EASA UAS web page is: www.easa.europa.eu/unmanned-aircraft-systems-uas-and-remotely-piloted-aircraft-systems-rpas
The next few years will certainly see a revolution in personal and public transportation as the UAS industry grows and shakes out the designs and concepts that will provide the safest, most efficient and cost-effective autonomous aircraft. A critical component of that exercise will certainly be the effectiveness of each designer’s certification programs. Interfacing and working with your regulatory authority is an unavoidable and required component that must be high on your agenda as it is the key to your future.
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