A new report by an FAA aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) has drone operators feeling sky-high.
Under current regulations, drone delivery services must operate within the visual line of sight of the operator, necessitating the use of a ground-based observer either on foot or in a vehicle. Consequently, drone delivery trips are shorter than most operators would like them to be because flights in the air are limited by terrain and infrastructure on the ground.
But according to last week’s ARC report, that may not be the case for much longer. Established by the FAA in June, the Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) ARC delivered a set of recommendations to the aviation authority, including a push for a case-by-case approach to BVLOS operations.
Key recommendations from the committee include:
If the FAA’s handling of previous regulations like Remote Identification provision or the Operations over People rule are any indication, it will be one to two years before the agency follows through on BVLOS. But industry stakeholders believe it is a step in the right direction.
“Unlocking BLVOS will have a tremendous impact on the world, opening up opportunities only dreamed about in science fiction,” John Vernon, chief technology officer of ARC member company DroneUp, told Modern Shipper. “This report’s feedback and commonsense proposals represent the best from the technology, aviation, municipal and societal leaders and provide a solid list of recommendations to rule-makers.”
Currently, the FAA awards BVLOS waivers on a conditional basis, but so far only 86 have been issued since March 2018, with many going to research and development programs rather than commercial services. That means that only a handful of companies each year have been able to test drone deliveries longer than a mile or two.
But according to Zipline, another ARC member, the value of drone delivery is highest when drones can travel longer distances: “We appreciate the hard work by the FAA’s beyond visual line of sight aviation rulemaking committee. Enabling long-distance autonomous flight is a critical step forward making safe, clean, on-demand delivery available to all and ensuring America’s continued leadership in the skies,” the company told Modern Shipper.
Yariv Bash, CEO of Flytrex, also sees plenty of potential. “But it’s a very hard problem which will take tons of time to solve because the sky is already filled with humans flying airplanes, and you don’t want to jeopardize that,” Bash said. “Aviation is one of the safest industries, and it’s important to keep it that way.
“Having said that, the FAA is really investing a lot of effort into solving [BVLOS regulations], so I think that in the next two to three years, that’s going to be solved as well. And then the sky’s the limit for drone deliveries.”
Flytrex is in the business of delivering to homes via drone, airdropping drinks, groceries and hot food like chicken wings directly into customers’ backyards. While Flytrex’s local deliveries would be largely unaffected by the BVLOS recommendations, Bash’s experience with FAA regulations gives him hope that the organization will follow through.
“I think that the FAA took a very holistic approach, and it’s doing it with commercial drone deliveries in a very different way than most other regulators in the world,” he explained. “They’re investing an order of magnitude more resources into solving this, and we’re already seeing the fruits of that investment.”
The FAA’s efforts to promote commercial drone delivery began in 2017 with the launch of the Integration Pilot Program, an initiative that aimed to bring state, local and tribal governments together with private-sector drone operators and manufacturers.
That program, of which Flytrex was a member, concluded in October 2020 before the FAA launched a new program, BEYOND, which included most of the same participants. BEYOND aims to certify drones as if they were normal aircraft, and the initiative is nearing completion for several member companies.
The next big move by the FAA was the introduction of Remote Identification (RID) provisions. The final RID rule, published in January 2021, mandates that all unmanned aircraft heavier than 0.55 pounds be equipped with beacons that transmit identification and location data to the FAA and law enforcement.
Developed with safety in mind, that regulation helped improve the visibility of operations and again moved the commercial drone industry forward.
“It’s like adding license plates to cars back in the 1920s,” Bash remarked.
Also published in January 2021 and amended two months later was the Operations Over People rule, which does exactly what its name implies: It permits drone flights over people and in busy areas, as well as at night under certain conditions. That provision took effect last April.
That’s not to say it’s all clear skies for the FAA. The administration is currently contending with a lawsuit challenging the RID regulations, alleging that the provision violates the constitutional rights of recreational drone users under the Fourth Amendment.
The suit, backed by drone equipment retailer RaceDayQuads, lays out the argument that first-person-view drone racers, who often cannot afford expensive RID equipment and typically fly in RID noncompliant locations like their backyards, would be subject to “unreasonable searches” from the government for flying on their own property.
However, the BVLOS ARC recommendations figure to make life easier for both hobbyists and fledgling drone companies trying to find their wings.
“I think [BVLOS is] the last largest barrier to the market,” Bash explained. “It doesn’t mean that a new company entering will be able to scoot through everything and just start operating. … But once you start to structure everything and remove all the unknowns from that process, it really helps a lot.”
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Editor: Jack Daleo