What the Micro-UAS Recommendations Mean for Small Business Operators
With the Micro-UAS Arc publishing their Final Report on April 1st, there has been a lot company punditry, misinterpretations, and misleading comments from those who don’t really understand what the recommendations mean. Legal representatives want to take responsibility for the push for Micro-UAS as a category and some companies have positioned themselves as being the “stalwart heroes” of the drone community. The same company that says they created “LiDar,” who is suing other drone companies for patent infringement on “having an interchangeable mounting system” and “target tracking software,” is also taking credit for pushing for the micro-UAS rules discussed behind closed doors. While they may hope to take credit, truly this is just the next step in an evolutionary approach to technology regulation, and one that mimics that path forward taken by EASA/EUROCAE and Australia. Standards groups like ASTM and RTCA and regulatory agencies from around the world have been involved in this performance based approach alongside its development for a while now, and it’s important to understand how these changes have evolved over time, rather than pulled out of thin-air.
The Micro-UAS Aviation Rule Making Committee (ARC) brought together 27 stakeholders over a three-day period with the goal of considering “recommendations for a performance-based standard that would allow micro UAS to be operated over people who are not directly participating in the operation of the UAS or under a covered.” This is big deal for small operators, as nearly ALL of the missions with any business case involving photography, cinematography, surveillance, crowd monitoring, urban planning or surveying, etc. require flight over people, around people, or at least near individuals inside buildings. People and their creations are interesting to say the least, and ultimately drones help us look at interesting things in interesting ways. Currently, small operators are interpreting the rules for flight near buildings as being completely legal and within the scope of the Blanket CoA or amended CoAs that accompany Section 333 Exemption certification. They do this with a mix of fear and hope – fear that they are pushing the limits of their certification and hope that they won’t be caught. I know because I work with them…and sometimes I am one of them.
For Small Operators to be able to use a drone that meets certain criteria, which automatically allow them to operate near or over people, will remove a major headache to operators and provide much clearer technology goals. The question remains, “What do the ARC Recommendations actually provide?”
The below categorizations are what were provided as recommended to FAA, and what will hopefully be codified in the July 2016 (expected) release of 14 CFR 107.
Basic Rules to Know for Operators:
- The higher the UAS category, the more risk of injury to the ground population is considered to exist from either the system or the operation intended to be conducted.
- The higher the category listed, the more operational risk mitigations will be required. These include risk assessments, check listing, maintenance and flight logging, operations manuals, etc.
- The higher the category, the more documentation will be required by the operators and the more systems engineering and documentation to be required by the manufacturer.
- Industry consensus standards will be the measure for conducting risk assessments, providing certification of UAS category, and meeting the requirements of industry acceptance. Groups like ASTM and RTCA are already working on such industry consensus standards.
When looking at the categories for UAS, it’s important to understand that all of the categories are based upon a likelihood threshold for causing damage to a person that meets the Abbreviated Injury Scale (AIS) as created by the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine (AAAM). For those in the risk assessment world, this then brings together likelihood and severity thresholds – something very much lacking in US UAS industry thus far. AIS threshold lvl 3 is identified as including: “small penetrating skull, sinus thrombosis, ischemic bran damage, basilar fracture/LOC 1 – 6 Hours.” Whether you agree with this threshold isn’t the point. The point is that now the severity of damage and the likelihood that it will occur gives basis for how micro-UAS can be classified and certified.
The categories 1 – 4 for micro-UAS are listed below and, since I promised to interpret what the existence of these categories will mean for small operators, here are key takeaways:
- Manufacturers will have clear methods to certify where their drone falls in the categorized system, and therefore the operator can make a purchasing decision for how much work they will have to do to operate that UAS over people.
- Operators will have a method to operate over people that is legal and based on a safety risk analysis accepted by the FAA.
- The industry will be able to innovate into safety in order to meet these categories, rather than trying to guess what will be accepted by regulators as acceptable to diminish risk.
- There is now a target for risk acceptance that clarifies what safety is considered “safe enough” for flight over people.
- The greater the likelihood that an accident will cause “severe damage” (AIS level 3 or greater), the more mitigation and system design will be required.
- Category 4 considers UAS that will be flown over highly dense populations, and therefore require more operational risk strategies. The difference between Cat. 3 & 4 is population density below the UAS.
Remember these category recommendations have been developed to coexist with the 14 CFR 107 regulations. These categories provide a method to operate over people for very small, or very “safe,” UAS. As the operations become more complex, the populations below become denser, or the system itself gets heavier or faster, these categories become higher and the method that will allow for operational approval, stricter.
Ultimately, the Micro-UAS ARC Recommendations provide a standardized, internationally harmonious, industry consensus based approach to Micro UAS operations. It is a very positive step forward and one that small operators should be very hopeful about. If you’d like to read the entire report, you can find the link HERE.