The FAA’s New Rules for Drone Flights Over People

On Dec. 28, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced the release of “final rules” for unmanned aircraft systems – also known as UAS or drones.

There are two “final rules” to be exact: 

We previously wrote about how the remote ID rule essentially states that, if you are flying a UAS in United States airspace, you will need to broadcast your drone’s location and identification either within 18 or 30 months of Feb. 26 of this year, depending on whether you’re using a drone with a built-in transmitter or one that requires an add-on remote ID device.

In this article, we’re going to focus on how the Operations Over People and at Night Rule impacts your ability to fly over people, and what it means for the drone industry as a whole. 

What do the current rules say about drones flying over people?

The current rules for the commercial use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds, often referred to as “Part 107,” date back to 2016 and prohibit flights over unprotected people on the ground unless:

  1. The people are directly participating in the UAS operation
  2. The people are under a covered structure
  3. The people are inside a stationary vehicle
  4. The operator(s) have obtained a waiver from the FAA

At Consortiq, our drone consultant team helps clients obtain waivers for special use cases, such as operations that involve flying over people, BVLOS operations, and night operations, and we’re excited that these use cases are about to be normalized with the operations rule.

drone flying over people
Drone Image Taken Over Uninvolved People

What’s the rationale for changing this?

The FAA believes that, as drone technology improves and the value of use cases increases, there will be increased demand for UAS operations that involve flying over people, flying at night, and other advanced use cases.

By changing its regulations to accommodate for drone flight over people, the FAA hopes to allow for growth of the industry sector and advancement of drone technology, while maintaining its safety standards.

So can I fly my drone over people now?

It depends on what type of drone you have.

In the Final Rule on Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Over People, the FAA has designated 4 categories of drone operations and corresponding permissions requirements.

OK, what are the categories?

To operate in Category 1, drones can have a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 0.55 pounds (including everything that is attached to the aircraft) and must have no exposed rotating parts that could cause lacerations. 

It’s worth noting that there are currently no unmodified DJI drones that will fall into Category 1. DJI’s smallest platforms,  DJI Mavic Mini and DJI Mavic Mini 2, both weigh less than 0.55 lbs without propeller guards, but when propeller guards are added, they supersede the MTOW limit for Category and thus would be eligible for Category 2 operations instead of Category 1.

To operate in Category 2, drones can weigh more than 0.55 pounds, but they can’t be capable of causing injury to a human being that is greater than or equal to the severity of an injury caused by transferring 11 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. They also can’t contain any exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin. 

To operate in Category 3, drones can’t be capable of causing injury to a human being that is greater than or equal to the severity of an injury caused by transferring 25 foot-pounds of kinetic energy and also can’t have any exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin. 

To operate in Category 4, drones must have an airworthiness certificate issued under 14 CFR Part 21 and must be operated in accordance with the operating limitations specified in the approved flight manual or as otherwise specified by the administrator. 

How does category impact my permission to fly over people?

Category 1 operations are seen to have the lowest levels of risk relative to the other categories, so if you’re operating a drone that weighs less than 0.55 lbs at takeoff without exposed rotating parts, you can operate over people without applying for any additional permission, with the exception that you can’t operate over open-air assemblies unless the operation is compliant with the FAA’s Remote ID requirements. 

Meanwhile, if your drone is greater than 0.55 pounds at takeoff, in order to fly over people, you’ll need to qualify for Category 2 or 3 operations, which requires a Means of Compliance (MOC) and Declaration of Compliance (DOC).

What’s the difference between the MOC and DOC?

The means of compliance and declaration of compliance are confusingly similar sounding. The FAA’s operations over people and at-night rule states that the means of compliance is how you show that your sUAS:

  1. Doesn’t exceed the applicable injury severity limit on impact with a human being and
  2. Doesn’t contain any exposed rotating parts that could cause lacerations

Meanwhile, the declaration of compliance is basically a statement you submit that says that you’ve met the applicable injury severity limitations, the exposed rotating parts prohibition, or a combination of these requirements through an FAA-accepted means of compliance. 

In other words, you need the MOC to get the DOC, and the FAA must accept your MOC before you can use it to declare compliance with the requirements of this rule. 

Furthermore, if your MOC and DOC are approved, you’ll need to ensure your drone has an FAA-approved label indicating the category of operation for which it’s been approved.

What about Category 4 operations?

As alluded to above, if your drone isn’t eligible for Category 1,2, or 3 operations, but you want to fly over people, you’ll need to get an airworthiness certificate under 14 CFR Part 21.

This will enable you to operate over people in accordance with Part 107, so long as the operating limitations specified in the approved Flight Manual or as otherwise specified by the Administrator, do not prohibit operations over human beings.

What about flying over moving vehicles?

The final rules permit sustained flight over moving vehicles for Categories 1, 2, and 3, only when the operations are within a closed- or restricted-access site, and people located within the vehicles have advance notice of the operation.

If the operations are not in a closed- or restricted-access site, the operator can “transit” the airspace above moving vehicles but cannot maintain sustained flight over them.

Meanwhile, category 4 UAS can operate over moving vehicles as long as the UAS are “operated in accordance with the operating limitations specific in the approved Flight Manual or as otherwise specified by the Administrator.”

When will this “final rule” come into effect?

The rules will become effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

While it’s not clear exactly when that will happen, it is expected to be sometime this month (January 2021).

Why does this matter?

Influential UAS industry stakeholders, such as Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) CEO Brian Wynne, have noted that this is a huge step towards the integration of drones into the national airspace, as many types of complex operations can require flights over people. 

In particular, the operations rule could accelerate the development of drone delivery solutions. As we’ve written previously, companies such as Google, Amazon, Uber, UPS, DHL, FedEx, and even Domino’s have tested various types of drone delivery solutions.

However, despite some companies receiving waivers to test the technology, there is still no widespread drone delivery. FAA Administrator Steve Dickson has stated that the new rule is getting the US “closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages.”

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Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn is an experienced management professional who is currently pursuing her master’s in Data, Economics, and Development Policy at MIT while serving as principal consultant at Consult92.

Miriam developed a love for UAS technology when she served as operations manager at Consortiq. Today, having completed over 30 successful projects in 10 countries, she loves solving a wide variety of logistical, technical, and cultural challenges for her clients so that they can focus on what care about most.

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Drone Delivery Just Around the Corner

The UAV industry has rapidly grown in the last decade.

Commercial drone capabilities, such as LiDAR, seemed like science fiction just ten years ago. Today, however, collecting aerial data and generating a range of useful products has become commonplace.

Significant advancements in design, engineering, and software coding have given drones the power to accomplish much in the last few years. That said, there are some areas in which the platform’s full potential is yet unrealized.

One such application is drone delivery.

 

 

Drone Delivery & Logistics

Professionals in the logistics world spend a great deal of their time on the “last mile problem.”

The digital age allows for many services and products to be accessible instantaneously. Calls, emails, videos, and images are literally at our fingertips whenever we need them. And yet, even with the many advances in technology characteristic of modern societies, this is still not the case for most physical goods.

Once items are shipped from a business to a customer, the logistics of getting those items into often dense population areas efficiently is what the last mile problem refers to. The most important factors in last mile problem solving are route density and drop size.

Route density is the number of drop-off points on a given delivery route. Drop size is the amount of items that can be delivered at each stop.

Each delivery cost will decrease with more drop offs, and with more items delivered per drop off. Many of the largest companies in the world are looking towards drones to help solve this problem.

Google, Amazon, Uber, UPS, DHL, FedEx, and even Domino’s pizza are invested in UAV technology. In fact, one of the first drone deliveries in the world was in 2016 when a Dominos pizza franchise in New Zealand delivered the first pizza via drone. These companies have been very public about the benefits drones potentially bring to their respective businesses and customers.

 

UAS Delivery Regulations & Limitations

There are three reasons why drones have yet to fill the skies with packages and pizzas.

Government regulations, along with poor performance in route density and drop size, are challenges holding back large-scale UAV delivery.

Government regulations that hinder UAV expansion in this area primarily pertain to limitations on commercial drone flights.

Most countries limit commercial drone pilots to flying within the visual line of sight. Regulations also require a human pilot to have control of the drone during flight. Such legal conditions make large-scale drone delivery challenging, if not impossible.

Why Companies Are Still Investing

Fortunately, many of the world’s airspace agencies, such as the FAA and the CAA, are slowly working toward updating these restrictions.

RELATED ARTICLE: EUROPEAN UAS REGULATION FURTHER DELAYED

Several countries currently have trial programs studying how to better manage UAVs in their airspace. Experts in the aviation field believe it is only a matter of time before drones are allowed to autonomously operate around the world.

For route density and drop size, even large operations like Amazon are testing drones that can only deliver one package at a time with a maximum weight of no more than ten pounds. Limitations such as these would make it seem as if drone delivery services will never get off the ground or compete with current methods.

So, why are so many companies still investing heavily in the potential of the service?

Like Amazon, some of the largest investors in the space see these traditional last mile issues as less critical to drones. For example, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has pointed out the large number of people who live within ten miles of an Amazon fulfillment center, and that 86% of all products purchased on the site are under five pounds. Other expects believe 44% of all Americans live near fulfillment centers.

If these numbers are true, once government regulations ease up, the reality of 30-minute drone deliveries may be entirely possible.

Incorporating Drone Delivery

It is highly likely that, within the next few years, we will see the full scale of drone delivery services begin to take shape.

If you’re with a company that has problems with last mile challenges, you should take a serious look now at how drone delivery service can integrate into the current and future operations.

As regulations ease and technology continues to improve, drones may become the most efficient means of product delivery.

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About Consortiq

Consortiq is a global market leader of custom drone solutions. Our employees are driven by a mission to help corporations and state organisations leverage drone technology to accelerate progress and achieve the success they desire. At Consortiq, we base our solutions on intensive quantitative and qualitative research, hard facts, and deep subject matter expertise. As a talented group of drone and manned aircraft pilots, software engineers, defense consultants, and former air traffic control professionals, Consortiq’s employees understand the intricacies of aerial platforms and are able to provide a wide range of nuanced, effective solutions. 

We have a strong track record of providing training, logistical operations planning, fleet management software, risk mitigation, and legal/regulatory services, to clients in the media, public infrastructure, and public safety industries in Europe, North America, and the Middle East.

Our accredited training program helps pilots prepare and go beyond the US Part 107 and the UK GVC

Need help developing a safe, compliant, and efficient program? Complete the form below to get started!

 

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

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