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.”

Need support with your drone operation?

At Consortiq, we offer comprehensive drone services, training, and consultation for drone operation all around the world.

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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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