UMEX ponders the FAA’s small UAS rule proposal

Yellowhead

After over 3 years of the UAS community waiting with saint-like patience, the FAA chose the Sunday of a holiday weekend to announce its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for Small UAS (aka The Small UAS Rule or Part 107). Often such timing might be used to announce bad news, so nerves were tense as we sat in on the telcon and speed-read through the 300 pages of the Rule… What are our conclusions you may ask?

Well, the short answer is ‘SURPRISE’… both good and bad. So without précising the entire document (done very well in many other forums) here’s our take:

THE GOOD:

  1. Firstly, THEY DID IT! The UAS community has been on the edge of their seats awaiting this and now we have something to get out teeth into. Time to start (preparing to) launch our drones to make life better for all and make a little money for the faithful. Of course, we are still stuck with 333 Exemptions for the next 18 months or so, but it is progress.
  2. There’s not much there. For reasons well explained in the Discussion section, they have gone for proposing VERY lenient regulations, stayed away from random numbers (by not using something like 1500 feet for Visual Line of Sight for example) and kept the scope tight in terms of the most likely use cases for the most users (daytime, sub 55 lbs, VLOS etc.).
  3. No Pilot’s License or manned flying required. The recent 333 exemptions have all required a manned Private Pilot’s License (PPL) which I have always considered the equivalent of requiring a commercial trucker’s driving license to ride a tricycle. That requirement is gone, and good riddance.
  4. All the airspace you could ever want! Notwithstanding that you can’t GET to Class A, the FAA has proposed B,C,D,E and G with some sensible Air Traffic clearance requirements. That means you can mix it with the big boys…. Just please don’t.
  5. A license of our very own! Well, an ‘unmanned aircraft operator certificate’, but a piece of paper to impress local law enforcement with when they ask you why you are spying on the neighbors… Again, please don’t.
  6. We can fly from boats! Of course this might skyrocket your insurance and involve many a trip to the hardware store for replacement parts, there is much to be done offshore. Nice touch there FAA folks.

 

THE BAD (a bit strong, maybe the ‘NOT SO GOOD’?):

  1. We are now ‘Operators’ not ‘Pilots’. Despite the 2013 Roadmap suggesting that drone users would be joining the hallowed pilot community, they now suggest we use this title instead. In fact the Army has been doing this for years, so we’re not that concerned except that in FAA parlance an ‘operator’ is a business (like Delta airlines) and not an individual. I think we will have enough in common with our winged brethren to go for ‘unmanned pilot’, but I won’t die in a ditch over it. What will they call a UAS business though?
  2. Micro-UAV Rule not ready to go yet. The ARC made some top recommendations WAY back in 2009 and splitting the sizes down to Big, Little, Tiny and Miniscule made some sense, although was a bit complex. The dangling of a suggested Micro-UAS Rule which would allow tiny wee ones to roar down city streets was just mean… They could have put it in there for real I think.
  3. No need to certify that plane. This could go several ways, but with the hobby market and the home-builds being prolific, I feel there needs to be something more in writing to say ‘your aircraft has been inspected and approved for flight’. This would be a significant burden to ACIs, DPEs and CFIs (those being asked to process UAS applications), but with a bit of training and a sensible approach, this could all be part of a flight demo / test (see UGLY).
  4. NO BVLOS or Night Ops. Yep, these are tough restrictions, but well argued in the Discussion portion of the Rule and you could always get a 333 Exemption, or try a COA (if you are lucky enough to qualify) to try out your terrific lighting system and Airborne Sense & Avoid. For what it is worth, the European nations mostly still forbid these activities too and they have been flying SUAS legally for years.

THE UGLY (truly so…):

  1. Just a written exam… Really? Imagine the scenario, you buy a DJI S-1000 from your mate, cram for the exam using his old notes, pass the FAA written test and go flying in downtown Philadelphia. You crash into a river cruise ship and injure 5 kids on a school trip. Apart from being an idiot, you would actually be legal (except crashing is against the FARs too). Without a requirement for any logged flight time, a practical flight test or a hands-on knowledge session (maybe as part of an airworthiness check-up, see NOT SO GOOD point 4. above). I’m all for limiting regulation but this one feels uncomfortably lax, or is it just me?
  2. It’s like riding a bike… There is no logbook or even flight currency requirements to maintain your license. Another, easier, written test in 2 years is all that stands between you and skills obsolescence. In our example, even if you didn’t crash on Day One, you got bored and put your new bird on the shelf for 6 months. Someone in the pub asks you to film his roof to check for loose tiles: Easy money! Just dust it off, turn it on and yes, you guessed it… “Umm, it seems you have 12 loose slates and a big hole over the bathroom… By the way, can I have my drone back please, Mister?”
  3. “You’re NOT covered, Eric”. That’s what you would hear from your State Farm agent as they miraculously appeared on the roof top in the last example. That’s because there is no proposed requirement for you to have any insurance coverage. And aircraft can’t be covered on household goods insurance, so nice try there! This is inviting disaster… Limited training, no flight time, zero currency and not a jot of insurance. We are just one firmware update from some badly hurt people and pocketbooks. Of course we’re painting a worst case scenario, but it’s more interesting that way!

In the round, let us pass on a well-deserved ‘Congrats’ to the FAA UIO and assorted helpers in pushing forward in a completely unexpected manner: restores my taxpaying faith a little, so thank you. Lots of potentially contentious items to crow about and I am certain the commentary period will get extended and the final Part 107probably won’t get signed before 2017, but we will have a little more clarity to plan ahead, and one day we will look back on this whole past 10 years and laugh… or cry!

Good luck out there and fly safe!