By Charlton Evans, Sr. Manager, Commercial Aviation
The long awaited and anticipated rule published by the FAA to enable a thriving commercial drone market has arrived. The release of the rule uncorks a bottle of innovation and discovery for a large number of operators that were working in the shadows and pursuing specific exemptions under Section 333 of the FAA’s Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012, or just waiting to see what would happen. Now there is a clear path to a whole lot more airspace than ever before. The publication of the regulation has been accompanied by a well thought out online education system, a functional registration system, a reasonable, tiered pilot certification system and an honest attempt at an application that will make simple, safe airspace access even greater than it is now.
There will be a few bad actors out there that won’t register their equipment, won’t bother to watch the (free and educational) videos on the FAA website and YouTube to get up to speed, and won’t take the “Drone Driver’s License” test at an FAA Testing Center—but those folks will find it harder and harder to make money in a more formalized world where customers and insurers will start asking for references or to see credentials. The larger group of professional providers will help sift them out as non-compliant competition as well. You don’t see many rogue cab (or Uber) drivers, do you? It’s tough to exist long outside of a regulatory system when you are providing a service to the public. The end result is a much better educated field of drone pilots—because the majority will study and take the tests. They’ll have much of the same knowledge base as a licensed private pilot, and will be safer members of the aviation world for it. Maybe some will even go on to get pilot licenses and see it all from the air themselves rather than just through the lens on the drone.
The result will inevitably be increased legitimate drone activity, and when people get out and fly en masse—that’s when the real learning begins. We communicate as a culture in ways that didn’t really exist just a few years ago. The internet, email, forums, social media, text etc. all take the velocity of information sharing beyond our collective ability to take it in. Each day as the experience base of the commercial drone industry grows; the community learns and changes at an amazing rate. Demand for meaningful innovation in areas that present limitations to operators will naturally occur. Battery life, cameras, and highly capable user-friendly ground control stations are all examples. Smaller systems are the subject of the fastest innovation because the most access has been afforded below 400 feet and within sight of the pilot. That’s where there is a huge demand. I speculate that the next areas we’ll see tangible innovation are:
The process to publish a regulation is, by design, methodical and in a bureaucracy like the federal government that also means cumbersome and slow. Insanely slow. Without the right guidance and motivation, a new regulation can take more than five years to go from an idea to reality, but the outcome of that process is the safest and most active air traffic environment on the planet. The method to the madness should produce a regulation that enables the end user to operate, but prevent increased risk beyond a level that society will accept. Part 107 does that pretty well as a start, and the FAA has even thought ahead enough to advertise its capacity for waivers to the regulation! Want to fly beyond visual line of sight? Make a case for how you will mitigate the risk generated by that operation and apply for a waiver. Want to fly at night? Make a case and apply for a waiver! Want to fly 400 feet Above Ground Level (AGL)? Explain how you manage the risk to other aircraft and people/property and apply for a waiver! Want to do all three at once? Well, now you’re probably not talking about Part 107 anymore. But there are opportunities to get waivers, and the FAA is in listening mode. The regulation itself won’t be changing quickly, but the waivers that the FAA considers will help define how to safely operate somewhat outside of the basic box that Part 107 describes for commercial drone operations. Keep an eye out for technology that enables a sizable payload to be carried for a day’s worth of data collection, beyond line of sight, and below 400 feet.
What Part 107 won’t do is provide unfettered access to the airspace above 400 feet. Our sensors and basic flight characteristics (like a small general aviation plane) tend to make us most effective above about 1000 feet AGL or even higher. And we are already pushing close to the 55 pound limit with ScanEagle. Integrator is well over the weight limitation, and has even more reason to fly higher. Altitude is our friend, data collection analysis and delivery is our business, so the use of our sensors needs to be optimized for lower altitude. We will use other smaller aviation tools under Part 107 to accomplish work that’s appropriate there, and we’ll seek waivers like those you can find already advertised in the press for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and night operations. Ultimately though, our product concept of operations (CONOPS) demands the kind of design assurance that comes from the certification world. A certified UAS combined with technology that enables us to fly far, fly higher, fly at night and fly in the weather make ScanEagle and Integrator ideal candidates to use in remote sensing for commercial enterprise-level customers. Maritime applications, very remote places, and flight over hazardous environments (like train tracks) are all going to be big business for Insitu Commercial Aviation. Part 107 will be one enabler in that strategic space.
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