This summary article describes how the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently expanded options for civilian drone operators/remote pilots to routinely fly their aircraft over people in the National Airspace System (NAS) under certain circumstances. This article is an overview and does not include full details.
To allow such flights previously, the FAA primarily relied on its authority to grant or deny operators individual (case-by-case) operational waivers to the regulations in Part 107, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS), in U.S. Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
Effective 21 April 2021, amendments to Part 107 allow drone pilots to perform these flights simply by adhering to the published requirements and limitations. FAA describes amendments published in the final rule titled “Operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Over People,” as the next incremental step towards further integration of sUAs in the NAS. These amendments also establish how to conduct routine operations at night and routine operations over moving vehicles under certain circumstances (those details have been omitted from this article).
In June 2021, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told remote attendees at the virtual FAA UAS Symposium: “Even in the midst of a global pandemic … we nevertheless finalised the Operations Over People Rule incorporating Operations at Night and Operations Over Moving Vehicles and the Remote ID Rule. We are using these advances and capabilities to move full speed ahead into the beyond-visual-line-of sight realm and into the promise, ultimately, of Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management [UTM] and Advanced Air Mobility [AAM]. … We’ve allowed these types of operations before, but always on a one-off basis, with case-by-case approvals through waivers. Now there’s no need for a waiver — provided that the pilot and the drone meet all the requirements that are in the rule. … We expect operations over people to begin in earnest in the next six to 18 months as the new rule becomes inculcated in the system.”
Nevertheless, drone operators/remote pilots who cannot comply, or otherwise want to deviate from Part 107, must submit their unique safety case, and apply for approval for and receive a unique waiver. This has long been common for operators of unmanned aircraft (UA) larger than sUAs or when proposed flight missions involve complex risk-mitigation situations beyond the scope of Part 107.
The waiver process addresses risk mitigation — through evaluation of the known or the foreseeable risks in a safety case — of factors such as their UAs’ design/performance/maintenance factors; their pilot certification and training system; compliance with regulations and additional FAA requirements; and limited-time formal agreements.
Another of the new amendments requires that the remote pilot, owner or person manipulating the controls of an sUA must have in their physical possession — and readily available — their remote pilot certificate while operating over people, over moving vehicles or at night.
- Small UAS (sUAS) — The FAA defines this as an unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms) on takeoff, including everything that is onboard or attached to the aircraft.
- Means of compliance — A person designing or producing a Standard Remote ID drone or broadcast module for operation in U.S. airspace must show that they have met the requirements of the sUAS Remote Identification Rule by describing the methods by which the person complies with the performance-based requirements for remote identification.
- Declaration of compliance — This is a record submitted to the FAA by the producer of a Standard Remote ID Drone or Remote ID Broadcast Module to attest that all production requirements of the FAA’s final rule have been met.
- Standard remote identification — The FAA defines this as “the ability of a drone in flight to provide identification and location information that can be received by other parties.” A Standard Remote ID Drone is one that is produced with built-in remote ID broadcast capability in accordance with the FAA Remote ID Rule’s requirements.
- Remote identification broadcast module — This means a device that broadcasts identification and location information about the drone and its take-off location in accordance with the FAA Remote ID Rule’s requirements. (The broadcast module can be added to a drone to retrofit it with remote ID capability.)
- Operational waiver/waiver — This is an official document issued by the FAA that approves certain operations of aircraft outside the limitations of a regulation (e.g., deviation via an operational waiver requests to fly specific drone operations not allowed in Part 107). Essentially, certificated remote pilots will be authorised to deviate if the FAA determines that they can still fly safely using alternative methods.
FAA Final Rule
The major provisions of these amendments concern whether a certificated sUAS operator is eligible to conduct operations over people, according to these categories:
- Category 1 — Eligible sUAs must weigh less than 0.55 pound (.25 kilogram), including everything on board or otherwise attached, and contain no exposed rotating parts that would lacerate human skin. Remote pilots are prohibited from operating an sUA as a Category 1 operation in sustained flight over open-air assemblies unless the operation meets the requirements for standard remote identification or remote identification broadcast modules established in the Remote ID Final Rule. No FAA-accepted means of compliance (MOC) or declaration of compliance (DOC) is required.
- Category 2 — Eligible sUAs must not cause injury to a human being that is equivalent to or greater than the severity of injury caused by a transfer of 11 foot-pounds (14.91 joules) of kinetic energy upon impact from a rigid object, does not contain any exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin upon impact with a human being, and does not contain any safety defects. This category requires an FAA-accepted MOC and an FAA-accepted DOC by the applicant.
- Operating rule — Remote pilots are prohibited from operating an sUA as a Category 2 operation in sustained flight over open-air assemblies unless the operation meets the requirements for standard remote identification or remote identification broadcast modules established in the FAA’s Remote ID Final Rule.
- Category 3 — Eligible sUAs must not cause injury to a human being that is equivalent to or greater than the severity of injury caused by a transfer of 25 foot-pounds (33.9 joules) of kinetic energy upon impact from a rigid object, does not contain any exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin upon impact with a human being, and does not contain any safety defects. This category requires an FAA-accepted MOC and an FAA-accepted DOC.
- Operating rules — The remote pilot must not operate the sUA over open-air assemblies of human beings. The remote pilot may only operate the sUA above any human being if operation meets one of the following conditions:
- (a) The operation is within or over a closed-access site or restricted-access site and all human beings located within the closed-access site or restricted-access site must be on notice that an sUA may fly over them; or,
- (b) The small unmanned aircraft does not maintain sustained flight over any human being unless that human being is directly participating in the operation of the small unmanned aircraft; or located under a covered structure or inside a stationary vehicle that can provide reasonable protection from a falling small unmanned aircraft.
- Category 4 — Eligible sUAs must have an airworthiness certificate issued under Part 21 of FAA regulations. The sUA must be operated in accordance with the operating limitations specified in the approved flight manual or as otherwise specified by the FAA. The operating limitations must not prohibit operations over human beings. The sUA must have maintenance, preventive maintenance, alterations, or inspections performed in accordance with specific requirements in the Part 107 final rule.
- Operating rule — Remote pilots are prohibited from operating a small unmanned aircraft as a Category 4 operation in sustained flight over open-air assemblies unless the operation meets the requirements of standard remote identification or remote identification broadcast modules established in the Remote ID Final Rule.
Evolution of U.S. Risk Mitigation
At the June 2021 FAA UAS Symposium, three panelists (listed in References–Other) discussed why the FAA’s sUAS Operation Over People amendment to Part 107 likely will shift the first paradigm of high volumes of repetitive, individualized waivers being manually processed to a system in which most certificated drone operators/remote pilots instead can comply with Part 107 without time-consuming waivers or unpredictable decisions by the FAA.
- Moderator Theah Dickerman said, “We need to keep in mind that with [implementing] Operations Over People, the process is incremental. Risk assessment push-and-pull [for two years in this instance] is something that we always experience when developing regulations.”
- Panelist Mike Wilson said, “We have been able to integrate unmanned aircraft more proficiently … providing more and more operations through Part 107 and now through Part 89, the Remote ID Rule, and certainly through the amendments to Part 107 through Subpart D for Part 107. Originally, 70 percent of waiver requests were to operate at night. Now the new rules give us the opportunity under certain conditions to fly over people, fly over moving vehicles and fly at night without a waiver.
“Safety, in the Operations Over People Rule, is primarily centered around [risk of] injuries to people within the operation as well as for people outside the operation. When FAA first started [approving] operations over people — during early development of Part 107 — we only provided the opportunity for people [in the motion picture industry, for example] to operate drones in a closed-set environment. People underneath the drone had to sign off on knowing that the drone was operating over their head. For companies in motion picture [production] — people were surrounding their closed-set — to be sure that nobody else got in — as their risk mitigation, their safety net. Now we require kinetic energy [awareness], the idea of the impact of an sUA into a person based on possibility of injury. [Remote pilots may make] a determination to use prop guards, for example, for that risk.”
- Fear-inducing public perceptions of high risk in drones-over-people scenarios also must be mitigated by the drone industry itself, panelist Dave Krause said, “Public perception includes how they view an individual [remote pilot] or an operator flying over a crowd. We make ourselves visible when we’re out in the field. Wearing a high-visibility vest or a hard hat communicates to nearby people what you are doing — and makes them aware that, in your operation, you are mitigating that risk.”
He added that the safety culture of all stakeholders involved in sUA operations over people can never tolerate complacency. Krause said: “It’s really great for us to be putting a drone up in the air. It’s kind of exciting to be over people and certain subjects — to get that nice elevated view — but it’s important that we survey our surroundings before we even put that drone in the air. Let’s face it — it comes down to safety and training. Hitting a telephone line causes an accident that wouldn’t have occurred if we had taken the time to preflight and check our UAs.”