In January, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced plans to make it easier to operate drones over crowds and at night. Currently, civilian drones are not permitted for use directly over people, due to concerns that they could fall from the sky and hit an unsuspecting person. Night use currently requires special permits.
The draft rules divide drones by categories such as weight and other criteria. Those under 55 pounds would be permitted to fly over people. To operate those above that weight over people, manufacturers would need to demonstrate that if the drone hit a person “the resulting injury would be below a certain severity threshold.” The largest drones would still not be allowed to be flown over crowds.
Some of these technologies are still in the early phases of development. Fully autonomous or self-driving vehicles, for example, exist primarily in limited and controlled circumstances. They are not yet available in the marketplace. Drones, however, are well on their way to mainstream deployment. They are widely used by hobbyists, by first responders, in rescue and recovery efforts, and to inspect infrastructure.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) website, as of December 14, 2018 there were nearly 1.3 million registered drones in this country, and more than 116,000 registered drone operators. And commercial space, which was once the realm of science fiction, is now a reality. Just five years ago, the U.S. lagged behind Russia, Europe and China in commercial space launches. Beginning in 2017, however, the United States became number one in commercial space launches, and maintained that lead in 2018.
In a public statement regarding the proposed rules, Chao said the department’s approach to new transportation technologies is performance-based, rather than highly prescriptive. “The department’s philosophy is to encourage the widest possible development of safe new transportation technologies, so consumers and communities can choose the mix of options that suits them best. “
The department proposed new rule that would allow drones to fly overnight and over people without waivers, if certain conditions are met. Current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations do not permit small drones to fly at night without a waiver. The proposed rule allows drones to fly at night without a waiver, if the operator has received appropriate training, completed approved testing, and if the drone is equipped with anti-collision lighting.
In addition, current FAA regulations prohibit drone flights over people. The proposed rule would allow drones to make routine flights over people without a waiver or an exemption under certain conditions. These conditions depend upon the level of risk to people on the ground, and are spelled out clearly in the proposal.
In addition to the previously mentioned proposals, the latest plan also identifies major drone safety and security issues that may pose a threat to other aircraft, to people on the ground or to national security. The proposal seeks recommendations to reduce these risks as drones are integrated into the nation’s airspace.
Drone Traffic Management Pilot Project Selectees
The final announcement was the selection of commercial service entities that will develop technology to manage the airspace for the drone pilot projects announced in 2018. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management System Pilot Project is distinct, but complementary to, the traditional FAA’s air traffic management system.
The pilot project, through September 2019, is intended to develop and demonstrate a traffic management system to safely integrate drone flights within the nation’s airspace system. Also, the pilot project will create a shared information network and gather data that can be used for future rulemakings.
Through a stringent application and evaluation process, the following providers were selected based on the strength of industry partnership, the maturity of the technology offered, and overall cost: Nevada UAS Test Site Smart Silver State; Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site; and, Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.
These contracts have been awarded to mature technologies for unmanned aircraft traffic management including, flight planning, communications, aircraft separation and weather services for these drones, which will operate under 400 feet.
Developing drone traffic management was initiated as a research project by NASA and subsequently became a major joint effort between the FAA and NASA. In April 2017, through Congressional direction, the agencies combined their respective technology research and began defining the scope of the pilot project.