As a parting gift to show that 2020 wasn’t all bad, the FAA released two long-awaited rules that will help push the drone industry into the future. The FAA’s ultimate goal is to enable routine drone operations in the same airspace as manned aircraft, but a lot of hurdles have to be cleared before that is possible. Like a game of Chutes and Ladders, many small moves and a couple of big ones are required to reach that goal, and along the way, there is an ever-present danger of sliding backwards.
One of the big ladders is remote identification of drones. Brian Wynne, president of the industry’s largest advocacy group, called remote identification “the single most important element in the next evolution of drone integration”. That’s because until now, the only way to identify a drone has been to read the serial number off the outside – clearly not a practical solution, nor one that allows the actual operator of the drone to be identified. This matters, because even if a drone is operating in an unsafe manner, federal laws make it impossible for local law enforcement to take out the drone while in flight, and tracking the drone to its ground control station is very difficult.
When the new remote ID rules take effect, drones will have to broadcast their ID, location, altitude, velocity, and the location of their ground control station. Of course, bad actors can find ways to get around this, but it will greatly expand the ability of law enforcement to handle drone operators who are not malicious, just ignorant or negligent. David Thirtyacre, head of drone flight training at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University added, “From our experience with local law enforcement organizations, a large majority of the drone flights they’re responding to are being conducted illegally, like the aircraft not being registered, or flying beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. The drone community needs accountability and I see remote identification as a major step in the right direction”.
Overall, the rule has garnered praise from across the industry, including manufacturers like DJI and software providers like Kittyhawk, whose CEO Jonathan Hegranes wrote that the rule is “a license to innovate and create advantages for our enterprise customers and recreational pilots alike”. A dissenting voice was from Wing, Alphabet’s drone delivery operation, which called out potential invasions of privacy. “An observer tracking a drone can infer sensitive information about specific users, including where they visit, spend time, and live and where customers receive packages from and when,” Wing asserted in a blog post. Although drone flight paths will be available to all within the broadcast range, the correlation between the ID and its registration will be reserved for the FAA and law enforcement.
The FAA’s second big ladder was the rule to allow commercial night operations and operations over people. Up until now, the only way to fly a drone at night or over people (legally) was by requesting a waiver from the FAA. The FAA will now allow night operations if the operator receives additional training and the aircraft is equipped with exterior lighting. In a tweet, Brendan Shulman, vice president of policy at DJI, commented “There will be lots of attention this week on the new Remote ID and Over-People rules, but the seemingly less-noticed Night Operations rule is how drones will save lives. Many of the 524 rescues on our interactive map are from operations at night.” Operations over people will be permitted if drones meet certain safety requirements designed to minimize impact loads and lacerations from spinning propellers.
The changes won’t go into effect for roughly two years, and several other problems still need to be solved before drones are zipping over your house delivering medicines and pizzas. Most notably, the next big ladder to climb will be enabling drones to routinely fly beyond the visual line of sight of the operator. But so far, 2021 is off to a good start for the drone industry.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has published final rules for Part 107 drone operations (drones used for commercial work). The rules specify the need for Remote ID and also loosen the rules around flying over people at night.
The FAA has announced that it will be requiring Remote ID on Part 107 licensed drones, which can most succinctly be described as a “digital license plate.” The agency says that Remote ID is necessary “to address aviation safety and security issues regarding Unmanned Aircraft (UA) operations in the National Airspace System, and is an essential building block towards safely allowing more complex UA operations.”
The Remote ID rule applies to all operators of drones that require FAA registration. There are three ways to comply with the Remote ID requirement: operate a drone that broadcasts its ID and location information, use a Remote ID broadcast module (which is a separate part that can be attached to a drone), or operate a drone without a Remote ID but at specific FAA-recognized identification area.
In addition to the Remote ID requirements, the FAA has slightly loosened its rules regarding nighttime flights over people. The new rule now varies depending on the level of risk the drone might pose to bystanders and is broken into four categories. Depending on which category a drone falls into, operations at night are now allowed under certain conditions. You can read the description for each of those categories here.
Pilots who wish to fly their drones at night must complete either the updated initial test or the updated recurrent online training prior to flying. Additionally, in order to qualify for nighttime flights, the drone must come equipped with anti-collision lights that can be seen for for three miles and have a flash rate sufficient to avoid a collision.
These new rules still prohibit sustained flight over moving vehicles.
These updates become effective 60 days after the publication date in the Federal Register, and publication is expected in January of 2021.
As a reminder, if you fly only for fun or recreation, you do not need a Part 107 license. The newly-finalized rules only apply to those flying for commercial purposes.