The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced last week that it will be working with industry leaders and public stakeholders to develop a traffic management system for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or drones). UAS traffic management (UTM) requires a framework for systems to safely operate multiple UAS at once. The FAA wants to first establish operating rules before industry service providers and operators would coordinate the execution of flights.

For example, operators want to use smart-phone applications to map routes for drone flights and to check flight restrictions. The FAA has been working on UTM for drones since about 2015, when it first partnered with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

In November 2020, the FAA conducted flight tests through its UTM pilot program in Virginia and is working on an implementation plan based on that research. However, industry stakeholders have asked for more information on the next steps, and it is uncertain whether the FAA’s plan will include performance goals and measures (which is not statutorily required).

The FAA says it will use results from the pilot program to assist it in creating its implementation plan. However, the industry has voiced concern about the limited release of information related to UTM technology.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is recommending that the FAA: (1) provide stakeholders with additional information on the timing and substance of UTM testing and implementation efforts via the FAA’s UTM website or other appropriate means, and (2) develop performance goals and measures for its UTM implementation plan. The Department of Transportation agreed with those recommendations.

With more available data from the FAA’s research in its pilot program, members of the UAS industry and public stakeholders will be able to better align their own activities with those of the FAA and make better decisions for UTM testing and implementation.

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Last week, the Executive Order on Protecting the United States from Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) expanded the U.S.-China drone controversy to North Korea, Iran, and Russia.

The Order also provides the Secretary of Commerce with the authority to designate “any other foreign nation, foreign area, or foreign non-government entity engaging in long-term patterns or serious instances of conduct significantly adverse to the national or economic security of the United States,” in addition to China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia.

The purpose of the Order is to, “prevent the use of taxpayer dollars to procure UAS that present unacceptable risks and are manufactured by, or contain software or critical electronic components from, foreign adversaries, and to encourage the use of domestically produced UAS.” However, this Order is not necessarily a “cease-and-desist” order; instead, it requires federal agencies to review their “authority to cease” procuring, funding or contracting the “covered UAS” of such foreign adversaries within the next 60 days. A “covered UAS” includes a drone that:

  • is manufactured, in whole or in part, by an entity domiciled in an adversary country;
  • uses critical electronic components installed in flight controllers, ground control system processors, radios, digital transmission devices, cameras, or gimbals manufactured, in whole or in part, in an adversary country;
  • uses operating software (including cell phone or tablet applications, but not cell phone or tablet operating systems) developed, in whole or in part, by an entity domiciled in an adversary country;
  • uses network connectivity or data storage located outside the United States, or administered by any entity domiciled in an adversary country; or
  • contains hardware and/or software components used for transmitting photographs, videos, location information, flight paths, or any other data collected by the UAS manufactured by an entity domiciled in an adversary country.

The Order also requires federal agencies to inventory covered UAS that already are owned or operated by the agency, and to then report their existing security protocols. However, and particularly with respect to China, several federal agencies have already conducted this inventory and assessment. No later than 120 days after the inventory reports are completed, the Director of National Intelligence, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the heads of other agencies will review the reports and submit a security assessment to the President, including recommended mitigation steps for decreasing the risks associated with these UAS and whether any UAS’ use should be discontinued completely by federal agencies.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must also lay out restrictions on the use of UAS on or over critical infrastructure within 270 days of the Order; the FAA already has the power to issue a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR). At present, TFRs can be requested only by national defense, national security, and federal intelligence departments and agencies. However, other government or private sector entities can, in the interest of national security, request those agencies to sponsor a TFR over critical infrastructure, (e.g., oil refineries and chemical facilities). The goal of the Order is perhaps to provide a direct line from private industry to the FAA.

We’ll see if the Order has staying power and the funding to support it. Stay tuned.

Let’s take a look at the lessons learned in 2020 and where the drone industry might be heading in 2021. Here are some key takeaways from the past year:

  • Continued Industry Maturity: In 2020, drones are now seen as more of a tool than a novel piece of technology. That means that we will likely see a shift from tests and pilot programs to real logistical operations.
  • Industry Regulations and Policy Changes: The new year will likely bring less restrictions and regulations for beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights. We have already seen more of this in 2020 (with the pandemic being a driving factor for loosened restrictions and BVLOS operations), and now that this trend has taken off, it will likely continue. Note that in 2021, the new EU drone regulations will come into effect, too.
  • COVID-19’s Impact on the Industry: The pandemic has brought lessons and new values to light for the critical infrastructure of companies operating drones. Because of this increase in drone use over the past year, it is likely that many more companies will adopt drones into their daily functions over the coming years as well. The efficiency, safety and effectiveness of drones has come to light during this unimaginable year.
  • More delivery drones will likely hit the skies.
  • More real-time image and video capturing by drones leveraging artificial intelligence (AI).

As the demand for drones continues in 2021, expect to see a surge of innovation to meet the various enterprise needs and address regulations. On to the new year.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued final rules for unmanned aircrafts (or drones) for remote identification and the operation of drones at night and above people.

The Remote Identification Rule (Remote ID Rule)  will allow operators of small drones to fly over people and at night under certain conditions. The FAA hopes that these rules will support technological and operational innovation and advancement.

Remote ID provides identification of drones in flight as well as the location of their local control stations, which will provide important information for national security agencies and law enforcement. The Remote ID Rule will apply to all operators of drones that require FAA registration. There are three ways that an operator can comply with the Remote ID Rule:

  1. Operate a standard Remote ID drone that broadcasts identification and location information of the drone and control station;
  2. Operate a drone with a Remote ID broadcast module (may be a separate device attached to the drone), which broadcasts identification, location, and take-off information; or
  3. Operate a drone without Remote ID but at specific FAA-recognized identification areas.

The Operations Over People and at Night Rule will apply to Part 107 drone operators. Under Part 107, flights over people and at night are prohibited unless the operator seeks a waiver from the FAA. With this new Rule, the ability to fly over people and moving vehicles will be based on the level of risk that the operation poses on people below. There are four categories of risk, which can be found in the FAA’s execute summary here.

Both Rules will become effective within 60 days of their publication in the Federal Register. The Remote ID Rule has two important deadlines: drone manufacturers will have 18 months to begin producing drones with Remote ID and operators will have an additional year to start using drones with Remote ID.

Elaine L. Chao, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, said that these final rules “carefully address safety, security and privacy concerns while advancing opportunities for innovation and utilization of drone technology.”

With over 1.7 million drone registrations and 203,000 FAA-certified remote pilots, this industry’s growth is only on the way up.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an $182,000 fine to a drone pilot for multiple (continued) violations of Part 107 -at least 26 violations to be more precise. Between December 2019 and August 2020, the drone pilot flew his drone around Philadelphia in violation of FAA regulations, sometimes violating more than one part of the regulations during a single flight. Before issuing the fine, the FAA sent a warning letter in October 2019. In November 2019, the FAA provided the drone pilot with counseling and education regarding requirements for safe drone operations.

The drone pilot put a number of videos on YouTube showing screenshots of the ground control station that has all sorts of things like altitude, the drone’s distance from the pilot, the drone’s location on a map, direction of flight, and other information. The FAA was able to use these videos to prosecute this individual.

Part 107 requires operators to obtain an authorization for Class B, C, D, or E2 controlled airspace. All authorizations are done through the FAA’s Drone Zone portal or through LAANC. If there are no authorizations through those means in Philadelphia at the time of the video footage, then the FAA knows that the drone pilot did not fly in accordance with Part 107. Additionally, accordingly to the FAA the drone pilot also committed the following violations:

  • Drone flights at night, “in heavy fog” and “while it was raining,” “while it was snowing,” and “during strong winds.” (Part 107 prohibits night flying and flying with visibility less than 3 statute miles).
  • Multiple drone flights that were very close to multiple buildings and structures. (Part 107 does not allow you to cause undue hazard to people’s property if a loss of control were to happen for any reason during the drone operation).
  • Some of the flights were over the Philadelphia downtown area over moving vehicles and people. (Part 107 prohibits flying over people and, as noted above, prohibits causing undue hazard to people on the ground).
  • The drone pilot did not have a remote pilot certification.

Overall, the FAA alleges that the pilot violated 12 Part 17 regulations over 26 different flights, with each subsection of Part 107 a separate violation. The lesson here -follow Part 107, know the rules and operate safely. Happy flying.

Easy Aerial, a provider of autonomous drone-based monitoring solutions, deployed its first autonomous drone security system at the Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California this week. This system will provide better surveillance and situational awareness from the skies. The system was developed in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force and consists of two drones – one that flies freely and a tethered drone. The launch of this new security system points towards the need for more effective surveillance in large spaces such as an air base, and the fact that drones can easily (and effectively) fill this need.

The system, the Smart Air Force Monitoring System (SAFMS), is a “drone-in-a-box solution,” which allows the drone to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In its box, the drone can charge in about 35 minutes and is protected from the elements. The tethered drone (SAFMS-T) is similar to the tether-less drone, but has a longer flight time and does not require a wireless connection. The lack of a wireless connection makes it easier to protect against middle-man attacks on the connection.

This system will increase efficiency, provide exceptional security, and increase safety for airmen and other critical assets, all while lessening the effort and resources needed to monitor and secure the base.

Ivan Stamatovski, CTO of Easy Aerial said, “This was a joint effort as we worked closely together from start to finish resulting in a customized solution for the USAF that meets all of their operational desires and requirements, all while providing operational safety to the airmen and assets.” More drone security systems are sure to hit the airspace soon to alleviate the need for on-the-ground security and extension camera-based security systems.

Texas’ drone law, the “Use of Unmanned Aircraft,” is being challenged by press organizations and photographers for alleged violations of the First Amendment. The law prohibits the capture of images of a person or property while conducting “surveillance.” It takes it a step further and makes it a crime to use the images captured during surveillance. However, the law has an exemption for the use of such images for educational purposes (among others), but newsgathering is NOT one of them.

The plaintiffs claim the drone law stifles their ability to do their jobs, a violation of the First Amendment. This week, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, Judge Robert Pitman, said in his ruling on the State’s Motion to Dismiss that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that the surveillance provisions are a content-based regulation of speech because it exempts some speakers from liability but NOT journalists. Judge Pitman also said that the claim that the definition of surveillance under the law is vague and therefore may also survive the Motion.

However, the portion of the complaint that did not survive the State’s Motion was the claim that the law’s no-fly zone over prisons and other specified areas is preempted by federal regulations. Judge Pitman said the plaintiffs failed to adequately allege that the regulations occupy the total sphere of drone regulation or that the no-fly zone is inconsistent with the federal goal of uniform drone regulation.

The Texas legislature will reconvene in 2021. Perhaps lawmakers will amend the regulations to address some of these issues.

For more information, the case is Nat’l Press Photographers Ass’n v. McCraw, 2020 BL 464053, W.D. Tex., 1:19-CV-946-RP.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a reminder this week for all those whose drone registrations expire next month. If an individual or business registered a drone directly with the FAA through its DroneZone, you should log into your account to renew your registration. If you registered using a third-party service, you should contact that company to request DroneZone login credentials or create a new account and obtain a new registration.

The DroneZone (and its registration processes) was established in January 2018 and granted three-year registrations for $5. Remember that the FAA requires all drones to be registered, except those that weigh .55 pounds or less and are flown exclusively under the Exception for Recreational Flyers.

Check out the DroneZone here.

If you live within a one and a half-mile radius of the east side of the Walmart store in El Paso, Texas in a single-family home, within a one-mile radius of the North Las Vegas Walmart store in a single-family home, or within a one-mile radius of the Cheektowaga, New York Walmart store, then you are eligible to take part in the COVID-19 testing delivery-by-drone pilot program. It works like this: A drone drops off a testing kit with a self-administered nasal swab; the patient then ships the sample to Quest Diagnostics using a pre-paid shipping envelope. The results are provided to the patient online.

With the rising number of COVID-19 cases in these areas, the hope is to provide more testing and accessibility.

This program is available only while the supplies last. It is offered Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This is yet another example of drones potentially increasing efficiency and improving accessibly for health care.

While drone deliveries have been tested for medical supplies, e-commerce/package delivery, and even pizza right from the oven, there are other, seemingly endless possibilities for delivery by drone. Recently, Reliable Robotics Corp. (Reliable Robotics) and Giumarra Companies (Giumarra), a distributor of fresh produce in California, joined forces to launch an automated flight test program to help solve supply chain and delivery challenges within the industry. Their first successful flight was conducted in August, when a drone delivered peaches from a farm to a grocery store within 24 hours of harvest. This task is not yet available at scale for U.S. growers. The goal of this program is to reduce time and touch points between farms and consumers.

Tim Riley, President of Giumarra, said, “We believe autonomous aircraft will transform the future of the fresh-produce industry. This test proved the technology is viable and will evolve how we bring products to market by enabling us to deliver fresher, riper fruit anywhere in the country, including remote food deserts, at speeds never before seen.” Domestic air transport of produce has not been economical, but autonomous drone flights could make it possible and could provide more access to delivery sites, including small municipal airports in underserved areas.

This is yet another example of drones creating more efficiency, cost-reduction and, here, even greater access to healthy foods for those in areas in which they might not otherwise be able to obtain it.