Much has been written about the FAA’s NPRM for sUAS over the last week and a half. I think it’s safe to say that, while many were pleasantly surprised by the liberality of the proposed rules, most comments from the industry have been critical, particularly of the requirement for Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) and the prohibition on night operations, as well as the requirement for an aeronautical knowledge test and sUAS pilot certification.  The comments posted to date at regulations.gov have ranged from the thoughtful to the unhinged.

But before submitting comments, it is useful to understand what the FAA is thinking, and how it views the path going forward. Otherwise, even the most well-intentioned comments are likely to drift off-point. The FAA has made this task simple enough by laying out its reasoning in the first 160 pages or so of the NPRM.

The entire framework of the proposed rule can only be truly understood by taking into account what the FAA sees as two primary concerns that, in its view, are unique to UAS: (1) the ability of the operator to see and avoid other aircraft; and (2) Loss of Positive Control (i.e., a loss of communication between the vehicle and the control station).

See and Avoid:

The FAA emphasizes that the first job of an airman in avoiding collisions with other aircraft is to adhere to the “see and avoid” rule of flying. The FAA believes that pilots of manned aircraft have an inherent advantage in exercising see and avoid because they are able to use their peripheral vision from the cockpit. The agency is concerned, on the other hand, that the vision of an operator of a UAS who relies on FPV or other camera devices will be too restricted to be able to effectively see and avoid other aircraft.

The agency has considered requiring on-board see and avoid detectors, as have become standard on manned aircraft. However, it believes that, at least for now, the technology is not advanced enough, and is too heavy, for use onboard small UAS. The agency nevertheless remains open to suggestions.

One can of course raise countervailing considerations, such as the fact that a sUAS at 500 feet will be extremely difficult to see with the naked eye. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to overstate the amount of importance that the FAA attaches to this subject. Comments on the VLOS rule should respectfully take the agency’s concerns into consideration.

Positive Loss of Control:

Another point of emphasis, one that also relates to the proposed VLOS rule, is that problem of Positive Loss of Control. The problem is well-known, as evidenced by a flurry of reports of fly-away incidents, including the White House episode, last month.

The FAA believes that the risk of PLoC is significantly mitigated by keeping the operator within VLOS. Again, the agency is open to ideas on less restrictive ways to address this, but its concerns should be respectfully considered when making comments to the NPRM.

The Elephant in the Room:

As we noted last week, the FAA realizes that it has a compliance problem. But the FAA is not a police force, and it currently has no ability to quantify the degree of non-compliance. It also knows that imposing regulations that are unduly burdensome will only foster more non-compliance.

Its goal, therefore, is to enact regulations that encourage compliance while balancing its safety concerns.  Again, keep this in mind when submitting comments.

About Those § 333 Exemptions:

Until a final rule is in place, commercial operators who don’t want to risk problems with the FAA will still need to apply for and obtain a Section 333 exemption. One of the questions on people’s minds has been, why does the FAA impose such mind-bogglingly stringent requirements, such as requiring a private pilot’s certificate, when granting these exemptions?

The FAA claims – and here is where I think that the agency is being disingenuous – that it has no statutory flexibility under Section 333 to waive:

  • Requirements for Airman Certification;
  • Security Vetting;
  • Aircraft Marking;
  • Registration Requirements.

That seems like a very odd assertion to make, given the fact that, for example, there is no airman certification requirement for operators of single-seat ultralights, which are much heavier than a typical sUAS and are powered by gasoline engines. The FAA does not claim any particular statutory authority for its regulations governing ultralights, other than a general series of statutes giving the FAA discretion to manage safety in the NAS.

Moreover, federal agencies – especially under this administration – have rarely been shy about claiming the maximum regulatory authority under the law. And the courts generally defer to an agency’s reasonable interpretations of the statutes that it is charged with administering.

It is therefore difficult to understand why the FAA claims such a lack of regulatory flexibility under Section 333. We are open to suggestions.

This NPRM Is Not the Last Word:

The above notwithstanding, the FAA clearly sees this NPRM as a first step on a long path to full UAS integration. It notes that the object should be to remain as open as possible to innovation, and it realizes that the pace of change in the UAS industry is rapid enough that it should avoid imposing some of the more stringent requirements, such as type certifications, that are common for manned aircraft.

It has specifically invited comments on a wide range of topics, such as whether UAS can be employed as air carriers, as well as available technologies and procedures that would allow safe VLOS and night operations, and whether a micro-UAS rule would make sense.

The comment period closes on April 24, so the time to get rolling on submissions is now.