The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has selected Iris Automation to participate in the FAA’s Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). Iris Automation is a safety avionics technology company with Detect-and-Avoid systems and other services that assist its customers in developing scalable BVLOS operations for commercial drones. The BVLOS ARC’s mission is to provide recommendations to the FAA for regulatory requirements based on unmanned aerial system (UAS or drone) performance. The requirements will assist in normalizing safe, scalable, economically-viable, and environmentally-safe UAS BVOLS operations WITHOUT positive air traffic control.

The FAA administrator, Steve Dickson, said, “This [BVLOS ARC] will consider the safety, security and environmental needs, as well as societal benefits, of these operations. Within six months, the committee will submit a recommendations report to the FAA. I think we can all agree this is a big step forward, and it will help pave the way for routine package delivery, infrastructure inspection, and other more complex drone operations beyond the visual line-of-sight of the remote pilot.”

The FAA has sought the input and expertise of the UAS industry and interested stakeholders in the past. Now, the FAA will utilize Iris Automation’s expertise to help establish safety and performance standards for BVLOS operations. This is yet another step to integrating drones into the national airspace in a safe, effective, and efficient manner.

This week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)  announced its Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Support Center Case Management System (CMS), designed to streamline how industry stakeholders’ questions are answered and provide responses in a more timely manner. This new process will use a Contact Customer Support form that allows the public as well as stakeholders to submit their questions to the FAA and more easily obtain the appropriate answer or information necessary to operate drones safely and in accordance with FAA regulations. Inquiries must include the stakeholder’s name, preferred method of communications, email address, phone number, zip code, and type of UAS so that the Support Center Analysts can more efficiently answer the specific question or concern. This is yet another step towards more widespread integration of drones into the national airspace. For the FAA and stakeholders, ease (and speed) of communication is key to success.

The Defense Innovation Unit, the Silicon Valley outpost of the Department of Defense (DOD), is seeking commercial algorithms to help build an automated network of military drones to accomplish complex tasks using artificial intelligence (AI). The Unit is requesting algorithms specific to networking and decision-making (rather than computer vision or autopilot systems) to help the DOD accomplish its goal of a connected platform of drones working together. The solicitation states, “While these algorithms extend to a variety of use cases, this specific prototype evaluation will be focused on coordinating long-range, high-speed, fixed-wing aerial platforms operating in contested environments.”

The solicitation program will be structured as a series of prototype events in which those selected will deploy their algorithms in an unclassified, live, virtual-constructive development environment.

This is yet another step forward in the DOD’s ongoing plan to develop autonomous systems to carry out its operations. At present, the DOD’s drones are piloted by service members, but the goal is to utilize these algorithms to determine how a pack of drones should react as opposed to the individual service member on a joystick or software.

To view the solicitation and project description, click here.

Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), a federally-designated drone test site, and Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science, technology, and society in Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, released a new report this week about what the public really thinks about drone delivery. Notably, Vinsel focuses much of his work on the community of Christianburg, Virginia, which is the first community in the United States to implement residential drone delivery services. Christianburg’s residents were asked about drone delivery, and they actually had pretty positive things to say. Of the more than 800 respondents:

  • 87 percent liked the idea of drone delivery;
  • 89 percent would use the service; and
  • 58 percent said their opinion of drone delivery improved during the pandemic.

Vinsel said, “The key thing is that speculation about technologies is different than actual experiences with them.” During the pandemic, the delivery efforts included delivering library books and expansion of the services to include more local businesses. Virginia Tech’s press release regarding this new report said, “Fifty-eight percent of Christiansburg survey respondents said that their opinion of drone delivery had improved — a much bigger boost than was measured in a 2020 survey from the Consumer Technology Association that polled a general population sample. Here again, Christiansburg residents’ experience with drone delivery may have contributed to the jump — seeing a favorite coffee shop find a new way to reach customers without in-person shopping, or a neighbor’s child receive a delivery of sidewalk chalk and crackers, may resonate more than an abstract appreciation for contact-free delivery.”

Many prior surveys of the public perception of drone delivery were negative. However, Virginia Tech points out that most of those surveys polled individuals who had likely never received a delivery by drone, and had to speculate on the service as opposed to reporting on actual experiences. Additionally, many of the previous surveys had framed the questions in a way that implies risk and potential problems, which may have prompted a negative response.

While this survey and report is great news and a step in the right direction for drone delivery, it could also be positive for commercial drone applications. The researchers have learned that community outreach, experience, and education are critical to public acceptance. Commercial drone service providers could use this approach to increase public acceptance across the board.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Remote ID rule for drones (Part 89) became effective on April 21, 2021. Part 89 will likely increase commercial drone operations while promoting safety and security. With the drone industry predicted to grow to $63.6 billion by 2025 (particularly in agriculture, construction and mining, insurance, telecommunications, and law enforcement), new regulations such as Part 89 are vital to maintaining that momentum.

As I previously wrote, Part 89 includes new operating requirements for drone operators, including a requirement to operate only unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that meet the remote identification design and production standards set out in the rule, and contains three (3) remote identification classifications:

  • Standard Remote Identification: Requires the UAS to transmit identification and location information to an FAA-contracted UAS Service Supplier (USS) and locally broadcast that information in unrestricted, unprotected Bluetooth signals. The FAA plans to leverage the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system that it is currently using to provide authorization for drones to fly in restricted airspace.
  • Limited Remote Identification: Requires the UAS to transmit identification and location to an FAA-contracted USS only, but is applicable only to visual-line-of-sight operations occurring within 400 feet of the operator.
  • No Remote Identification: Drones would not be required to transmit remote identification when operating within an FAA-Recognized Identification area (FRIA), the designation of which can be requested by community-based organizations, such as model aircraft clubs and associations.

The production and design rules are effective as of September 16, 2022 (with a few exceptions). The operational requirements are effective as of September 16, 2023.

While many of these new requirements will mainly affect drone operators, manufacturers will need to take the most action to comply with the production and design rules over the next year. We’ll watch the progress of these rules and the implementation closely over the next few months.

For the past few years, the main mechanism used by the U.S. against China in the U.S.-Chinese tech war has been Executive Orders limiting (or even banning) certain software and drones manufactured and/or owned by Chinese companies from use by government agencies. Now, instead of only playing defense against Chinese technology, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY)  and Todd Young (R-IN) have teamed up to support the Endless Frontier Act (Act). Originally introduced in 2020, S. 3832 will be revamped and made a keystone of this new Act.

The bipartisan group in Congress seeks to invest in U.S. education, science, and technology as well as research and development. This Act would invest $100 billion in these areas over a five-year period. The Act, as originally submitted, would rename the National Science Foundation as the National Science and Technology Foundation, and establish two Deputy Directors, one for Science and one for Technology.

The Deputy Director of Technology would oversee a newly created Directorate for Technology whose  goals include:

  • Creation of stronger leadership in critical technologies through research in key technology focus areas;
  • Improving education in key technology focus areas and making it more attractive for students to become involved in those areas;
  • Increasing federally-funded research and development to achieve national goals related to economic competitiveness, domestic manufacturing, national security, shared prosperity, energy and the environment, health, education and workforce development, and transportation

The ten key focus areas would be:

  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning (AIML);
  • High performance computing, semiconductors, and advanced computer hardware;
  • Quantum computing and information systems;
  • Robotics, automation, and advanced manufacturing;
  • Natural or anthropogenic disaster prevention;
  • Advanced communications technology;
  • Biotechnology, genomics, and synthetic biology;
  • Cybersecurity, data storage, and data management technologies;
  • Advanced energy; and,
  • Materials science, engineering, and relevant exploration relevant

For the drone industry this is great news. The Act would increase scholarships, fellowships and other student support in areas including AIML, automation, robotics and advanced manufacturing, which are all important to autonomous flight. However, the fate of the Endless Frontier Act is still unknown. We will follow its path through Congress and see if it may pave the way for more legislation like it.

United Parcel Service (UPS) announced this week that it will test electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOLs) for package delivery. UPS purchased 10 eVTOL from Beta Technologies (Beta), which it plans to test for use in its Express Air Delivery network. These eVTOLs are set to be delivered to UPS in 2024, pending certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Beta Technologies also plans to provide landing pads and rechargeable batteries. With just a single charge, the eVTOLs can fly up to 250 miles at 170 miles per hour.

All testing and operation of the eVTOLs will be done under Beta’s Flight Forward division, which is tasked with research and development for package delivery by drone.

Vice President for UPS’s Advanced Technology Group, Bala Ganesh, said “We can see a future where [the eVTOLs are] carrying, let’s say 1,000 pounds, 1,500 pounds to rural hospitals,” and landing on a helipad instead of at an airport.

However, there will be some literal obstacles in the way. For example, delivery by eVTOLs in a busy, congested city like New York might restrict some use. UPS says it may not be a one size-fits-all solution, but that the willingness to pay and urgency of need could mean that UPS would find a safe way for the eVTOLs to get there.

UPS said it initially plans to use them in smaller markets and create a series of short routes or one long route to meet customer needs. However, these eVTOLs can increase efficiency and sustainability, while reducing costs.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure heard testimony from U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg this week on the Biden Administration’s priorities and plans for national transportation infrastructure.

Although Secretary Buttigieg’s testimony did not provide details specifically about unmanned aerial systems (UAS or drones), Secretary Buttigieg comes to the DOT with a history of success in promoting autonomous systems, which will hopefully help lead the way for the industry on a federal level.

A highlight for the UAS industry from the hearing was the Secretary’s support for regulatory updates and UAS technology. Secretary Buttigieg stated that “[t]he biggest thing that we need to do is establish safety and establish certainty for industry.” To support innovation in this space, Congress needs to keep up with the evolving technology. Collaboration between the DOT and the industry will allow federal policy to support safe deployment and integration.

We will continue to monitor progress toward federal regulation for safety, standards and privacy protections.

A lawsuit filed in North Carolina claims that, under the First Amendment, surveyors cannot stop drone operators from selling photos taken from above and making maps.

Typically, a landowner contacts a surveyor to help establish a legal property line. However, what if you just want to see what your property looks like or create a visual map of your property or business as a tool to make decisions about new developments on your property or to determine what type of topography you have? A surveyor is not your only option. Now, you can hire a drone operator to take aerial images using commercial drone software to create orthomosaic maps and 3D images.

North Carolina’s  Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors (the Board) may send a warning to drone operators warning them that certain photography might amount to surveying without a license, which could lead to criminal prosecution. Whether that’s practical (or legal) in the evolving drone industry is now up for debate.

Michael Jones, a photographer and videographer from North Carolina who began using drones to obtain images and video about five years ago, takes aerial images for many different client purposes, such as real estate; property management and inspection; and marketing. In 2018, he received a letter from the Board warning that his aerial imaging could be considered surveying without a license (even though he claims that he did not use his work to establish property lines and informed his clients that the images could not be used for legal purposes). However, a Board investigator told Jones that providing images with any metadata (such as GPS coordinates, elevation, or distance) or putting together several images to create a map of the land qualified as surveying and required a state-issued license. Jones ceased his work, worried that he could face criminal prosecution.

Now, in 2021, Jones has partnered with the Institute for Justice  in a lawsuit against the Board claiming that the images that Jones created for his clients were not being used for determination of legal boundaries, but only for informational purposes, and therefore, such creating and sharing of information is protected by the First Amendment. A copy of the complaint can be found here.

Perhaps drone operators and traditional surveyors should combine forces: drones could be a useful tool for surveyors, saving time, money, and physical work.

We’ll keep you updated on how the court rules on this one.

This week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that on April 21, 2021, the final rules for remote identification (ID) of drones and flights over people and at night will go into effect.

Remote ID will require identification of drones in flight as well as at their takeoff points. The FAA hopes to increase the safety of other aircraft, people and property, and to assist law enforcement with public safety through the use of this remote ID system.

For more information on the remote ID rule and its effect on operators and manufacturers, click here.

For drone flights over people, the rule will apply to all pilots who fly under FAA Part 107 regulations. The rule sets forth a series of risk factors and the permissible operations depending on the level of risk to people on the ground. The rule also allows drone operations at night, provided certain conditions are met, i.e., the drone must have lighted anti-collision lighting that is visible for at least three (3) statute miles and has a flash rate sufficient to avoid a collision.

For more information on the flights over people rule, click here.

Additionally, in order to fly under these new rules, remote pilots must pass the updated FAA initial aeronautical knowledge test or complete an updated online training course, both of which will be available beginning April 6, 2021.