Flying with Drone Regulations

As the Eno Center for Transportation assesses the challenges of safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the airspace of the United States, we are studying how operators interact with the UAS regulatory framework. At the end of this process, we will have recommendations on how the regulatory process can further raise safety awareness, increase the quality of interactions between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and operators, and function more efficiently. At this early stage of work, we believe several significant trends deserve attention from industry and regulators.

Regulation plays a key role in helping the UAS industry assess risk, develop safety measures to prevent injury to those on the ground, and understand the durability of the UAS and its components. Yet, the traditional focus of the FAA has been manned aircraft operations within the context of technological advances that occur at a predictable pace. The UAS industry presents regulators with aircraft development cycles measured in months rather than years, technologies for which many have no analog in manned aviation, and new procedures whose level of risk may not be understood.

Until further work is accomplished by both industry and government, we will continue translating manned aircraft regulations for this new industry. In situations where no alignment exists between regulation and planned use, operators are supposed to seek waivers, exemptions, and certifications from the FAA by showing they can be operated with an equivalent level of safety as offered in current rules.

The FAA exercises regulatory authority of UAS systems through the Federal Air Regulations (FARs). These include, 14 CFR Part 107, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and 14 CFR Part 21 Certification Procedures for Products and Articles. Congress also provided for waivers for certain operations under Part 107 and in a separate process called Section 44807, which granted certain exemptions to FARs. Eno has studied a representative sample of waivers and exemptions filed with regulators and here is what we found.

Under Part 107, the main body of regulations for UAS systems under 55 lbs., Congress permitted the FAA to issue waivers for eight categories of operations, including flying at night and flying beyond line of sight. Through a survey of UAS users, Eno has found that waiver approvals during the evaluation period were not proportionate to waivers requested. For example, the FAA reported that 87 percent of all waivers issued were for night operations. However, 72 percent of Eno survey respondents reported seeking waivers for operations other than those at night. In another example, 35 percent of survey participants sought waivers for flying over people, yet FAA data shows only 3 percent of waivers were granted for this operation.

The most striking findings in our research on Section 44807 were found in the migration of petitions for regulatory relief away from this section (and legacy Section 333) to Part 107. Comparing comparable time periods, under the old framework more than 3,238 petitions were approved by FAA while under the new framework only 38 were approved. It was expected that new regulations would drive activity away from 44807 (333). However, we were not expecting the magnitude of the migration, nor that agriculture (38 percent) and heavy weight photography platforms (about 29 percent) usage would dominate this section, as opposed to uses such as commercial package delivery.

Section 44807 exemption request data highlighted that 65 percent of applicants submit their own application and 35 percent use a 3rd party preparation service. But those who prepared their own exemption request were denied 32 percent of the time, while those prepared by a 3rd party were denied 5 percent of the time. On average, the FAA took 267 days to process an exemption request. For those exemptions approved, the average was 240 days and those denied 391 days.

Eno found that 15 sections of the FARs form the bulk of exemption requests under 44807 and also are granted in the highest proportion. These pertain to policies, procedures, and equipment that are required in the manned aircraft certification process but have no UAS analog. For example, the FAA routinely (and for good reason) exempts UAS from the requirement for seatbelts in aircraft. The most commonly rejected FAR exemption requests are those that are related to using UAS for commercial purposes, such as carrying goods for compensation. These denials approach 100 percent. (ed note: recent Part 135 approvals by FAA occurred after this data collection period. Inclusion will partially lower this figure.)

The data collected suggests that UAS operators continue to need support in understanding how to apply the appropriate regulatory pathway to their proposed operations. In addition, the shift from 44807 exemptions to Part 107 waivers suggests that new regulatory structures may be needed to respond to this migration.

In the coming months, the Eno Aviation Work Group will evaluate these data sets and make public policy recommendations.

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