Regulators, aviation industry show new support for drone operations

Ever since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued strict rules in 2016 for the limited operation on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the United States, the air cargo industry has waited for a loosening of the regulations as drone technology has progressed at a rapid pace. Today, the FAA may be taking its first steps toward making drones a more commercially viable technology by announcing a proposed rulemaking to allow greater flexibility in UAS operation.

At the same time, the private sector – namely aviation technology company Altitude Angel and drone imaging firm DJI – is doing its part by creating technology to make the operation of drones safer in the crowded U.S. airspace. This is welcome news for many in the industry that have been concerned about recent near-miss drone incidents over British airports in recent months.

Today, the FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) added “Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems over People” to the U.S. Federal Register, proposing to amend the 2016 rules for UAS operation. “This rulemaking would allow operations of small unmanned aircraft over people in certain conditions and operations of small UAS at night without obtaining a waiver,” the notice read.

The proposal would also require UAS operators to present their “remote pilot in command certificate” to federal, state or local officials, upon request, and also would change the knowledge-testing requirements for UAS operators to be refreshed “every 24 calendar months.”

Under the current FAA rules, known as “part 107,” operators of UAS weighing less than 55 pounds must either hold a remote pilot certificate or be under the direct supervision of a certificate holder, and “excludes operations by any UAS weighing 55 pounds or greater” and by air carriers, regardless of size.

“This proposal is the next step in the FAA’s incremental approach to integrating UAS into the national airspace system (NAS), based on demands for increased operational flexibility and the experience FAA has gained since part 107 was first published,” the FAA said. “Specifically, this proposal would expand the activities permitted under part 107 to allow operations over people and at night under certain conditions.”

The FAA also acknowledged that “innovation in unmanned aircraft technology are virtually boundless and that the industry can move in directions no one can predict,” which led to its decision to loosen the rules to keep up with technology.

Starting today, the FAA is beginning a 60-day comment period, allowing interested parties to weight in on the proposed rule changes. To submit a comment, please see the Federal eRulemaking Portal, and follow the instructions on the website.

Meanwhile, on the technology side of the equation, DJI said today that it is launching its Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) 2.0 geofencing system across 32 European countries. Previously, the company said, geofencing was allowed in only 13 countries in Europe.

DJI is working with Altitude Angel to deliver real-time geospatial data for airports, areas under temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) and other sensitive areas. In Europe, Altitude Angel will replace DJI’s previous geospatial data provider AirMap. DJI worked together with Altitude Angel last year in Operation Zenith, a full-scale test at Manchester Airport of its platform for unmanned traffic management in controlled airspace.

GEO 2.0 creates three-dimensional “bow tie” safety zones surrounding runway flight paths and uses polygonal shapes around other sensitive facilities, rather than the simple circles used in earlier geofencing versions, DJI said. The 2.0 system also better reflects the actual safety risk posed in those sensitive areas and is more flexible in lower-risk areas, “for example, by permitting authorized users to conduct drone activities in locations parallel to runways,” DJI said.

The new system in Europe will be phased in starting later this month. During this time, DJI said it encourages authorities and drone users to share feedback on the existing zones to improve their GEO system.

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