On April 24, 2015, the comment period for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) regarding the operation and certification of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) closed with over 4,500 comments. The comments came from a wide range of interested stakeholders, including federal and state agencies (e.g., National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the New York City Department of Transportation), sUAS manufacturers and operators, traditional aviation stakeholders (e.g., Boeing and Airports Council International), labor unions, educational institutions, various industries and companies (e.g., Amazon, Commonwealth Edison Company, Motion Picture Association of America, Nuclear Energy Institute, and Travelers Insurance), press and media groups, privacy groups, hobbyists, and individuals.

The FAA is reviewing the public comments and has not announced an expected completion date. The FAA’s review will likely span a significant portion of the remainder of 2015. If the FAA makes substantive changes to the proposed rules before making the rules final, the FAA must publish a supplemental NPRM and offer another opportunity for comment. As the rulemaking process continues, interested entities or persons may continue to submit comments, but the FAA is not obligated to consider them.

UAS trade associations, including the Small UAV Coalition and Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, were generally very supportive of the FAA’s efforts and called for increased leeway in conducting sUAS operations, including nighttime and external load operations and flights over people not directly involved in the sUAS operation. More specific comments included:

  • Creating a separate regulatory scheme for micro-UAS (g., under 4.4 lbs.) operations and providing more leeway to micro UAS operators in circumstances where risks are negligible, including automated flight, operations at 500 feet AGL, and at ranges greater than 1,500 feet.
  • Requiring flying experience with an UAS before an operator flies a sUAS for commercial purposes.
  • Adopting an authorization process for sense-and-avoid technology.
  • Adopting a process by which the FAA may authorize beyond line of sight and external load operations based on the operational circumstances of the mission, technological capabilities of the sUAS, and the training and experience of the sUAS operator.
  • Allowing operation from a moving vehicle.

Some stakeholders, particularly those with traditional aviation interests, called for more stringent regulations or oversight of commercial sUAS operations.

  • The NTSB urged the FAA to include awareness of lost-link failsafe procedures in the operator test, operator development and use of maintenance and inspections steps and guides, and the characteristics and proper handling of lithium batteries. The NTSB cautioned that the dual meaning of the term “operator” in the aviation rules could cause confusion over responsibilities in the case of a company that owns multiple UAS and employs a number of sUAS “operators.”
  • The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (“AOPA”) recommended that the FAA: (i) lower the maximum altitude from 500 feet to 400 feet to de-conflict small commercial UAS with manned aircraft; (ii) prohibit sUAS operations near airports and landing facilities in Class G airspace; (iii) consider requiring geo-fencing technology that uses global position system (“GPS”) or radio frequency identification to define geographical boundaries; (iv) implement additional requirements to ensure identification in the event of an accident, incident, or violation; and (v) require the establishment of a publicly accessible small commercial UAS database to provide the public with information on UAS operations.
  • Airlines for America (“A4A”) recommended mitigating the following safety risks: (i) the small size and profile of sUAS make them difficult to be seen by operators of manned aircraft; (ii) sUAS will not be required to carry transponders or electronic beacons, increasing the risk of collision; (iii) autonomous sUAS operations may have little or no operator oversight; (iv) without being subject to any certification, performance, or safety standards, the lack of sUAS reliability poses a risk to persons and property on the ground and to manned aircraft; (v) difficulty of tracking down violators; (vi) loss of control by the operator. A4A calls for the FAA to adopt several proposal to mitigate the safety risks, including the requirement that operators under-go sUAS training and the final rules apply to hobby and recreational users of sUAS that are capable of autonomous, programmed, GPS operations.
  • Air Line Pilots Association International (“ALPA”) called for the FAA to:
    • Imposed design-based requirements to prevent operation beyond those permitted by the rules (g., above 500 feet);
    • Limit sUAS operations to Class G airspace at a certain distance from airports;
    • Establish experiential/demonstration criteria for sUAS operators, 2nd Class FAA Medical certificates, and a Commercial Pilot Certificate;
    • Establish conspicuity standards and/or advisory material discussing the factors influencing the ability to maintain visual contact;
    • Include a “return home” requirement (design and/or operational) in the event the operator/pilot loses visual contact with the sUAS;
    • Address mitigations for spectrum interference; and
    • Include requirements for “tamper-proof or tamper evident software and firmware” and control station displays of battery life.
  • The National Association of State Aviation Officials (“NASAO”) recommended that FAA maintain the visual line of sight and observer requirements and limit maximum altitude to 400 feet AGL and maximum speed to 50 miles per hour. NASAO also suggested that the FAA require sUAS operators to pass an FAA-administered aeronautical knowledge test because self-certification and online testing are not reliable methods of demonstrating an understanding of the National Airspace System.

All comments are publicly available at Regulations.gov, FAA Docket No. FAA-2015-0150.