Censys – FAA Drone Symposium Insights

Censys – FAA Drone Symposium Insights

It was a lovely week in Baltimore, and it was great to catch up with colleagues in this industry; some of whom are pushing the boundaries of what end users can accomplish with drones and others who are laying the framework for the next chapter of aviation to come with Advanced Air Mobility initiatives. Censys’ prime focus is on the drone space, and the Drone Symposium was our main interest, but we stuck around for the AAM Summit to get some insights on what the FAA is thinking about for AAM and how that may impact the UAS market in the future.

There was a lot of content packed into the three days and this overview isn’t going to go too deep on any one point. For the Drone Symposium, an overarching theme was BVLOS and the various pathways to get there. Here were some of the specific topics touched on:

  • The first panel jumped right into the theme that’s been dominating conversation at the FAA and throughout the industry: BVLOS. The FAA reiterated that the exemption pathway (under 44807) is being leveraged to streamline complex UAS ops approvals for well characterized operations. This topic was emphasized through discussion about the recent request for comments that the FAA published back in May (comments were due in June) for four exemptions and general BVLOS elements.
  • Another panel focused on near-term integration needs from the FAA’s perspective. The main idea here is on the continued education about UAS for ATC managers around the United States. From experience of seeking permission to operate UAS in controlled airspace all across the country, we’ve observed firsthand the drastic differences on how ATC managers handle UAS operations requests. LAANC has made it easier for operators to get approvals to operate, but when the facility maps for various airports are compared, it becomes clear that there are differences beyond typical crewed aircraft traffic patterns.
  • Pulling on the LAANC and integration threads, the FAA announced the plan to setup a UTM Key Site in the Dallas region – for areas within the region where routine drone operations are anticipated (the use case highlighted here are drone deliveries; where Wing has indicated intent to participate and other drone delivery outfits have expressed interest too). UTM will be needed to manage increased UAS volume in busier areas and we’re glad that the FAA, NASA and the industry partners supporting this effort are moving forward with this exercise to further push the technical solutions.

The overall takeaway is that it feels like the FAA is working harder now than it ever has on drone integration. While we appreciate the focus on more complex operations that will require a UTM framework to manage UA-to-UA collision risk, we wish there had been more focus on low-risk UAS operations that could be more widespread today. Censys’ clients have chosen to work with us because we’ve been able to successfully help our clients to secure Part 107 waivers to allow for BVLOS operations across the country. Those approvals have inherent limitations wherein UAS operations are in areas of low ground and air risk and operations without VO’s require close operation to infrastructure. What we would like to see is a consideration of rule changes for crewed aircraft in the NAS to allow for more widespread use of UAS with fewer restrictions. Imagine if there was a rule in place that mandated that crewed aircraft be required to broadcast ADS-B data when operating below 500′ AGL outside of published terminal areas; this would greatly reduce the air risk for BVLOS operations without VOs that are conducted with UAS that aren’t equipped with a DAA system or equipped with a DAA solution that isn’t compliant with a standard (ASTM, RTCA, etc.). The reality is that non-compliant BVLOS operations are conducted routinely in the United States (some of these operations are even disclosed in local social media groups – a quick search on Google will readily turn up examples) and there have been very low numbers of accidents between UAS and crewed aircraft.

On the DAA standard topic, the FAA hasn’t formally adopted any standard yet, but there is clear indication that DAA standards are on the FAA’s radar (pun fully intended); as evidenced in the recent BVLOS request for comments (which had a number of questions on DAA; Censys weighed in on the topic: https://www.regulations.gov/comment/FAA-2023-1256-0322). Beyond the request for comments, the FAA also published in late June an updated list of Waiver Safety Explanation Guideline (WSEG) questions that includes a new DAA section with reference to standards compliance under § 107.31. Given the emphasized focus on DAA, Censys is evaluating the evolution of DAA for our future product offerings to embrace the traction in this direction. This summer, we’ve been integrating a ground-based radar and establishing the workflow between a radar operator and the RPIC to proper management of the UAS when a crewed aircraft is detected in the vicinity. While this radar provides detect and alert capability right now, our team is in the process of developing the algorithms to get the ground-based detection information to the UAS and have the UAS execute an appropriate maneuver for various detection scenarios (for true DAA). Censys has a good rapport with the team that evaluates & issues Part 107 waivers and we anticipate that we’ll continue to leverage Part 107 waivers into the foreseeable future. However, we will start to look more closely at the exemption process and will continue to support our clients who can operate under public COAs to further push the boundary of BVLOS in the United States.

In closing, the Drone Symposium and AAM Summit were good events, but it was clear that what the FAA could disclose was limited. There were general requests for more data (as we’ve heard for many years now) and a reiterated commitment to the integration of UAS into the NAS. The biggest announcement was the UTM Key Site and that interestingly has the potential to blur the lines between UAS and AAM. An intent for the UTM Key Site is the promotion of BVLOS operations under the UTM umbrella that the FAA would like to use to help to formulate that language in the upcoming NPRM on BVLOS rulemaking (the target is September 2024). The industry is still moving in the right direction, and while there are still far too many cooks in the kitchen, we may see complex UAS (or AAM) operations unfold slightly more quickly than before.

By Rob Knochenhauer, Director of Regulatory Affairs Censys

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