The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that nearly 800,000 small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, will be sold this holiday season, and expects sales of an additional 1.9 million UAS to hobbyist and recreational users in 2016. Over the past year we have witnessed a surge in news events involving careless operators misusing drones, including crashes at stadium sporting events and hundreds of incidents involving close-encounters between UAS and manned aircraft.

In response to these recent news reports, the Department of Transportation (DOT) created a registration task force charged with making recommendations to the FAA about mandatory registration of small UAS, including those used for recreational or hobby use. On November 23, the Task Force released the final recommendations report. This week, the FAA released a 211-page interim final rule on UAS registration (registration rule) that incorporates some of the Task Force’s recommendations – and becomes effective next week. Continue Reading FAA Releases Rule on UAS Registration Requirements

Yesterday we reported on the FAA’s policy shift relating to flights near people. The FAA last week made another quiet change that implicates beyond line of sight operations.

While the demand for UAS continues to grow, the FAA’s current requirement that the UAS only be operated within visual line-of-sight of the operator limits the full potential of UAS for many commercial uses. Some of the most promising commercial UAS applications—precision agriculture, powerline inspections, and railroad inspections, to name just a few—necessitate flights beyond visual line-of-sight (“BVLOS”) of the operator to be efficient. “Line-of-sight” flight requires that the pilot can visually see the UAS at all times during the operation, unless another person acting as a visual observer maintains constant visual contact with the UAS.

The concept of “daisy chaining”—that is, the use of multiple, successive visual observers to extend the flight distance of the UAS beyond the direct visual line-of-sight of the operator—could help alleviate the FAA’s BVLOS concerns. Until last week, however, daisy-chaining was generally frowned upon by the FAA. In the Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM), the FAA stated daisy chaining “would. . . pose an increased public risk if there is a loss of aircraft control.” Continue Reading Moving UAS Policy Boundaries Forward, Take 2: Flights Beyond Visual Line of Sight of the Operator

In a quiet move last week, the FAA made an important revision to the requirements for commercial unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or drone operations, that may signal a significant policy change.

Every day, industry is finding new and exciting commercial uses for drones. Here in the U.S., private commercial UAS operations are, for all practical purposes, banned unless the operator receives what is called “Section 333 Exemption” issued under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. These exemptions have been issued for a wide spectrum of commercial applications, including things such as disaster response, construction site monitoring, and news-gathering activities.

Section 333 exemption approvals include a long list of requirements that apply to UAS operations flown under their authority. To industry, one of the most burdensome of these limitations is the requirement that flights occur at least 500 feet away from unsheltered people not involved in the flight operation. This condition makes it extremely difficult for any company – whether a newsgatherer, architect, engineer, or other – to conduct UAS operations near populated suburban and urban environments.

Buried deep within a Section 333 amendment approval issued to Kansas State University (KSU) last week, the FAA made a key change to this requirement that may signal a welcome shift in policy involving UAS operations in suburban and urban areas. In the KSU amendment, the FAA changed the set-off distance requirements to allow KSU to conduct flight operations over and near people participating in UAS flight training. Accounting for safety considerations, the new limitations ease the 500 foot set-back requirements from people. This is an appropriate step for the FAA to take.

Historically, the FAA has granted film and TV production companies special exemptions that allow them to fly aircraft closer than 500 feet to people participating in a filming operation. Prior to the change made last week, the FAA only permitted these types of operations in the closed set filming context.

For example:

Under the set-off requirements granted KSU, a broad range of commercial operators would be able to operate their UAS in situations analogous to a film set, where proper protections have been incorporated into operations.

If adopted more widely, this policy shift could significantly expand the scope of where commercial UAS operators may fly. The FAA is currently in the process of issuing rules for small UAS operations, and the FAA has stated that the Section 333 Exemption process is intended to inform that process. While it is unclear whether these new requirements will be limited to flight schools like KSU, or whether they could apply generally to all exemption holders and petitioners who request them, we sincerely hope that this change signals a policy shift that will inform the FAA’s final small UAS rule – and enable safe UAS commercial flights in suburbs, towns and cities across America.

As previously reported here and here, a month ago on October 19, 2015, the Department of Transportation (DOT) created a registration task force (RTF) charged with making recommendations to the FAA on what mandatory registration of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), including those used for recreational or hobby use, should look like. Today, the FAA publicly released the RTF’s much-anticipated final recommendations report.

Here are the key highlights from the RTF’s report to the FAA:

  • Perhaps most newsworthy is that registration under either the existing system or a new, alternative registration system would be required for all small UAS with a maximum takeoff weight of 250 grams (~½ pound) or more. Most vehicles capable of flying outside weigh at least this much.
  • An owner could register more than one UAS with the same registration number. Under the report’s recommendations, the new, alternative registration system would be electronic or app-based and provide the registrant with an immediate electronic certificate of registration and universal registration number that can be used on all UAS owned by the registrant.
  • Registrants would only be required to provide FAA with (1) their name and (2) physical street address. They’d have the option to also provide an email address, telephone number, and/or UAS serial number.
  • To encourage maximum participation, registration under the new system would be free.
  • Registrants could choose to affix their FAA-issued registration number to the UAS or they could rely on a manufacturer’s serial number that is already permanently affixed to the aircraft.
  • Any time a registered UAS is in operation, the operator of that UAS would be required to produce the certificate of registration for inspection.
  • Current commercial operators that have already registered their UAS using the existing paper-based aircraft registration system should not be required to re-register under the new, alternative registration system.
  • On a going-forward basis, commercial UAS operators should be permitted to use either the existing registration system or the new, alternative system.

It is important to note that these proposed registration requirements are only the task force’s recommendations to the FAA. The FAA will still need to review the recommendations and develop and issue a new rule before any new registration requirements take effect. While today’s announcement means the task force met Secretary Foxx’s goal of having recommendations by mid-November, it remains to be seen whether the FAA will meet the Secretary’s goal of having final registration rules in place by mid-December, when the agency expects up to 1 million UAS to be sold during the holiday season.

The FAA announced today that it is expanding its UAS Pathfinder Program to include an agreement with CACI International Inc. to evaluate how the company’s technology can help detect UAS in the vicinity of airports. Launched in May of this year, the FAA’s Pathfinder Program allows the FAA to collaborate with industry partners to explore the future of UAS operations beyond what the FAA initially proposed in the small UAS rule released earlier this year.

Testifying before the House Aviation Subcommittee, FAA Deputy Administrator Mike Whitaker said that flying an unmanned aircraft near a busy airfield poses an unacceptable safety hazard. During the hearing titled, “Ensuring Aviation Safety in the Era of Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” Whitaker told the congressional panel that the FAA signed an agreement this week to assess the safety and security capabilities of CACI’s product within a five-mile radius of airports and that the agency also will collaborate with its government partners in this effort. Continue Reading Moving UAS Policy Forward: FAA Expands Pathfinder Program to Enhance Drone Detection Efforts Near Airports

NFL subsidiary NFL Productions LLC d/b/a NFL Films has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for filming. But don’t expect to see snack deliveries or a drone kiss-cam anytime soon on game day. Like other companies that have received FAA authorization to fly UAS, the NFL affiliate will have to comply with a number of requirements — one of which includes not flying near spectators or general members of the public. Last October the FAA also issued a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) that criminalized flying UAS over certain large stadiums around the time of scheduled events.

The NFL affiliate filed for a Section 333 Petition for Exemption requesting permission to fly UAS on May 20, 2015, and the FAA granted the petition on September 17. Continue Reading Cleared for Takeoff: FAA Authorizes NFL Affiliate to Fly UAS

The Hogan Lovells Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Group recently held a workshop in Silicon Valley on the regulatory, business, and financial hurdles to operating unmanned aircraft systems. The event was of particular interest given the Federal Aviation Administration’s issuance of its notice of proposed rulemaking for small UAS operations on February 15 and the White House’s release on the same day of a presidential memorandum promoting economic competitiveness while safeguarding privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties in domestic use of UAS.

Read More: Hogan Lovells’ UAS Group Holds Workshop on the Regulatory, Business, and Financial Hurdles to Operating Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Silicon Valley