The notice of proposed rule making for Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Over People (NPRM) has been opened for commentary until April 15. Those seeking to assist the FAA in shaping the eventual regulation can submit comments for consideration until that date.

Much is covered in the 206-page NPRM document, but the headline grabbers have been the changes to the night operation waiver process and conducting operations over people.

According to the FAA, waivers for operations at night reached nearly 5,000 requests by December of last year. Two-thirds were disapproved for lack of necessary information. Despite the high disapproval rate, the FAA is proposing a waiverless standard with two conditions.

First, the operator would complete knowledge testing or training, including new subject matter areas related to operating at night. The second condition would be that the small UAS has an anti-collision light illuminated and visible for at least three statute miles.

In this case, if the operator has proven knowledge and outfitted the drone appropriately, the FAA is giving the operation the go ahead without additional paperwork. This comes after receiving no reports as of yet of small UAS accidents while operating under night.

Even light-weight objects can cause injury or death when falling from sizable heights. As such, operations over people have been restricted since drone regulations started going on the books. In the meantime, manufacturers and organizations developed innovative methods to gain waivers for flights over people. In October 2017, CNN was granted the first waiver to fly over people at 150 ft or higher by utilizing a quad copter that would splinter into smaller parts on impact.

In the proposed rule, the FAA will allow for routine operations over people under certain conditions based on the risk to injury they present. This has been broken out into three categories.

Category 1 includes drones under .55 pounds, for which there are no restrictions beyond what part 107 requires will be applied.

Categories 2 and 3 are more complicated and do not directly relate to the weight of the drone, but its ability to transfer energy on impact and other factors

Category 2 includes drones that can transfer 11 ft-lbs or less on impact and Category 3 includes drones that transfer 25 ft-lbs or less. Both categories require the drone not have blades capable of lacerating human skin.

The FAA states: “At present, no means of measuring exists to establish that a specific amount of energy equates with a likelihood of injury. Nevertheless, the FAA’s adoption of a performance-based standard as a performance-based measurement should encourage development of various means of compliance to ensure small UAS do not present an unacceptable level of risk of injuring a person when operating over people. The FAA emphasizes further research is necessary on the subject of proper modeling of small unmanned aircraft impact physics as it correlates to human injury.” The FAA is seeking comment on whether the kintetic energy models are the appropriate way to categorize the risk.

The performance-based standard that takes into account rigid objects on the airframe. In plainer terms, that means determining how many hard objects make up the frame and how large those hard objects are. This is taking into account that even heavier drones might have structures that are elastic, deform under influence or purposefully break apart like the CNN drone. This flexibility is intended to allow manufacturers to engineer innovative ways to reduce the transfer of kinetic energy which has been correlated with injury and death from impact.

The upper limit of Category 3, 25-ft-lbs of kinetic energy transferred, is considered after testing to have a low probability of causing a fatality.

For the Category 3 drones, greater operational restrictions would apply, flights can’t be conducted over assemblies of people, and they would have to be over a closed site where all personnel are informed they are being flown over or if not within a closed site, the aircraft may transit but not hover over people.

For the DIYers out there, The FAA is proposing that those who modify a drone after market will be considered a manufacturer if the modification changes its performance. According to the document, this includes but are not limited to, “changing computer code to remove operational restrictions, replacing compliant propeller blades with noncompliant blades, or attaching a camera or other payload to the unmanned aircraft that was not specifically identified as approved in the manufacturer’s instructions.” If one is looking to custom build drones for an enterprise, making any of those modifcations would mean the drone would have to be requalified FAA-accepted Means of Compliance and submit a Declaration of Compliance.

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