[Avionics Today 06-18-2015] FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker told lawmakers Wednesday that the long awaited federal rule regulating the commercial operation of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) will be published by June 2016. Whitaker was pressed about the agency's delays in releasing the rule during a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which also featured testimony from Amazon regarding its pursuit of the use of UAS to deliver packages
throughout the National Airspace System (NAS).
DHL's Parcelcopter is being tested for BLOS aerial medicine delivery in Europe. Photo: DHL.
Whitaker noted that under section 333 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, the agency is currently issuing between 40 and 50 exemptions per week to commercial UAS operations within low-risk, controlled environments. When asked by Rep. John Mica when the final rule would be published, Whitaker said the agency is currently reviewing comments made on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) issued in February 2015.
"The rule was issued earlier this year; comments were closed in April. We received approximately 4,500 comments. We have to adjudicate those comments," said Whitaker. "The rule will be in place within the year."
Within the February 2015 proposed rule, the agency recommends limiting the size, speed and range of commercial UAS; testing, certification and other requirements for operators; as well as airspace restrictions around airports. The proposed rule also limits all conduct to within Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) operations and establishes an interim policy for certain operators who obtain exemptions until the final rule is published. Under the FAA's current interim policy the agency is granting a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA)
for flights at or below 200 feet to any UAS operator that meets the other requirements included in the proposed rule.
During the hearing, lawmakers also expressed issues about privacy concerns, for which Whitaker noted that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has been assigned to develop a privacy framework. Others also asked whether the agency's proposed rules are too restrictive and would not allow for the types of complex Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) operations that Amazon is looking to perform in the U.S. Companies such as DHL are already testing these types of BLOS operations in Europe.
"We’ve tried to include in the rule the issues where we think we have a clear understanding of the safety risk and how they can be mitigated," Whitaker said in response to including BLOS regulations within the rule that he expects to be published in 2016.
"The issues that are outside of the rule like beyond line of sight, we’ll think we’ll get there and we’re going to try to get there as quickly as we can but there are still technology issues and standards that have to be developed. So we will have to work very diligently to keep that moving as the rule progresses," he added.
Amazon Vice President of Global Public Policy Paul Misener was also at the hearing to provide a commercial UAS operational perspective on the agency's proposed rule and the timeline for releasing the final version of the new regulations. Misener also provided lawmakers with a brief description of the concept of operations that Amazon has been testing with its UAS package delivery service.
"We have distribution facilities throughout the country and what we’d like to be able to do is enable that network of facilities to deliver packages to customers more quickly than what is currently possible using the ground transportation system network," said Misener. "We looked into all different kinds of functionalities on how to get things to customers on a 30 minute or less basis and what really worked are drones. In this way, our customer will be able to order something off of our website and have it delivered in less than 30 minutes to his or her home."
One of the key technologies that the FAA wants to see certified and widely available for use on commercial unmanned aircraft is sense-and-avoid or detect-and-avoid sensors that would allow them to see and evade other aircraft while flying beyond the operator's visual line of sight. Whitaker said in his opening statement that the FAA is continuing to collaborate with the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) and the UAS industry to develop standards for detect-and-avoid systems as well as command and control radios. RTCA Special Committee 228 (SC-228) is expected to complete and release minimum operational performance standards (MOPS) for sense and avoid technology by 2016.
Misener said Amazon is looking for the FAA to take a more forward-looking risk-based approach when considering the type of BLOS use of UAS that the company is looking to do with its UAS delivery service.
"We don’t disagree that it’s a more difficult use case to fly drones beyond line of sight," said Misener. "It requires a higher degree of automation within vehicles and we’re working on that. That kind of technology is being developed. Our respectful disagreement with the FAA is that we believe that kind of operation can be considered right now on the same risk based approach … What the NPRM did earlier this year was to essentially list that as a prohibited kind of a category of operation. What we’re saying is that ought to be considered right now just like other countries are considering beyond visual line of sight operations right now."