Aerlex Law Group

Here Come the Drones!

FAA-Approved Commercial Drone Flights Commence;
More to Follow as Regulation Slowly Evolves

Researched by Alex Friedman, Aerlex Intern Program

At the beginning of June, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) approved AeroVironment, a Southern California company, for the first over-land commercial drone operation in the United States. British Petroleum will employ the AeroVironment Puma to survey hard-to-reach pipelines, roads and equipment at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. This approval comes as a myriad of companies have asked the FAA to approve their use of drones, also known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS”), for commercial purposes. For example, the Motion Picture Association of America, along with several aerial photo and video production companies, has petitioned the FAA to approve drones for use in the production of films and TV shows.

Like AeroVironment and British Petroleum, many companies are quickly developing innovative drone technologies and applications which will enhance their businesses enterprises in groundbreaking ways. However, in the face of these fast-breaking developments in technology, the FAA currently permits commercial drone use only on a strict case-by-case basis. At the same time, the agency is struggling to meet the challenge of creating an effective regulatory framework for the full legalization of commercial drone flights in the United States.

To reach that goal, the FAA has selected six operators for the testing and development of UAS. These test site operators will conduct research and testing into the operational standards necessary to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace in the next few years. The six operators include the University of Alaska, the State of Nevada, New York’s Griffiss International Airport, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. As of June 24, 2014, the FAA has issued Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (“COA”) for UAS flights to begin at the North Dakota, Nevada, Texas and Alaska sites.

Each operator will focus on a specific set of research goals aimed at fulfilling the targets established in the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Comprehensive Plan (“the Plan”), released on November 6th, 2013.The Plan, which was developed under the guidance of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (“NextGen”) Senior Policy Committee, outlines a series of national goals and objectives for the integration of civil UAS in the National Airspace System (“NAS”) by the 2015 deadline required by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Specifically, the plan lays out six high level goals:

1. Routine Public Small UAS Visual Line-of-Sight (VLOS) Operations Conducted in the NAS without special authorization ( 2015)
2. Routine Civil Small UAS VLOS Operations Conducted in the NAS without special authorization (2015)
3. Routine Public UAS Operations in the NAS (2015)
4. Routing Civil UAS Operations in the NAS (2020)
5. Define, Determine, and Establish Acceptable Levels of Automation for UAS in the NAS (TBD)
6. Foster U.S. International Leadership in UAS Capabilities and in Standards Development (Ongoing)

In addition to these goals, the FAA defined eight National Objectives:

1. Establish Applicable Certification and Training Requirements for Pilots/Crew Members, Other UAS Operational Personnel, and Appropriate Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP) Personnel
2. Approve Applicable Medical Requirements and Standards
3. Establish Applicable Airworthiness Certification Requirements
4. Implement Small UAS rules
5. Approve the Use of Ground Based Sense and Avoid (GBSAA) for UAS Operations
6. Approve the Use of Airborne Sense and Avoid (ABSAA) for UAS Operations
7. Develop and Integrate UAS Enabling Technologies within the NAS Infrastructure to Support Appropriate Levels of Automation
8. Approve Integrated Operations for Manned Aircraft and UAS in the NAS

The FAA defines “small UAS” as unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds and is currently developing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) with the intent of providing safe small UAS access to the NAS. The FAA anticipates the release of this NPRM later this year.

The Plan also stresses the need for continued research and development as “the UAS National Goals to be achieved after initial integration in 2015 require technology solutions that are not fully available today.” This research will be conducted in collaboration with the Next Generation Air Transportation System, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, and the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Aviation Rulemaking Committee.

Forecasts cited by the FAA predict $89.1 billion of worldwide expenditures and research related to UAS over the next decade and the FAA expects that within five years of the regulations taking effect there will be approximately 7,500 commercial drones operating in the United States.