The commercial drone industry received a much-anticipated green light in 2016 with the release of Part 107, a set of FAA rules that allow widespread use of drones for commercial applications. But some applications for commercial drone technology require further regulatory development. There are three main areas in which commercial drone regulations are expected to develop in 2017: operations beyond visual line of sight, operations over people, and relief from certain airspace requirements.
Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS)
As of the end of 2016, commercial drone flights that go beyond the visual line of sight of the operator are not allowed by any company without specific approval by the FAA. To date, BVLOS is only allowed under waiver, via public COA or with use of chase aircraft and visual observers. Enabling more routine BVLOS operations is one of the FAA’s priority areas. The administration is already working on plans for BVLOS rules, and we expect a framework of their plans, known as a Notice for Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), to be published in mid-2017.
Once the NPRM is published, the public will then have 2-6 months to submit feedback in the form of comments to the FAA. Once the comment window closes, the FAA will consider the feedback as part of the process of drafting the actual rules. The rules would go into effect approximately 6-12 months from the release of the NPRM, a similar timeline to Part 107’s release, though the FAA has stated that they hope to accelerate this timeline.
Operations Over People
The FAA was expected to release an NPRM before the end of 2016 concerning further development of regulations for flights over people not directly involved in the drone operation. The public comment period for this NPRM, once published, will likely last until spring 2017. After the comment period is closed, the FAA will take public comments into consideration and then publish final rules in late 2017.
There are many cases in which commercial drones may need to conduct brief flight over people not directly participating in the operation. This is common for applications like quarry surveys or insurance inspections. These are typically people who are not involved in the operation, like other workers on a closed or restricted-access site. Flights that occur over people will be regulated according to risk involved, with lower restrictions for brief flight over people, and higher restrictions for sustained flight over people.
The specifics of the NPRM are expected to be based on the recommendation of an Aviation Rulemaking Committee, which can be read here.
One of the biggest pain points involved in commercial drone operations is getting access to low-altitude flight in controlled airspace, as this includes most of the metro areas in the US.
In order to fly in any airspace other than Class G, commercial drone operations require an airspace waiver. Airspace class can vary widely based on the complexity of nearby airports, which can make large-scale operations difficult. For now, the FAA assesses airspace waivers on a case-by-case basis. This can take months, as it requires back-and-forth between the company applying for the waiver, FAA headquarters, and the air traffic organization that manages the specific airspace in which the applying company wants to operate.
But the FAA has published a request for a proposal for a company to automate the airspace waiver approval process. This means that in the near future we could see a system that can provide immediate feedback for an airspace waiver application. The contract to build this system is expected to be granted to a bidder sometime around Spring 2017.
The advent of Part 107 made 2016 the first year that any company in the United States could conduct at least some commercial drone operations without specifically seeking permission. In 2017, the rules will get more precise, with a focus on expanding allowed operations while maintaining the safety and availability of America’s airspace.