Waivers, Safe Operations, and Navigating the FAA Regulatory Process
Through two days of breakout sessions and general plenary presentations from FAA administrators, test site operators, and NASA, Skytec returned with 3-key take away points from the 2017 FAA UAS Symposium:
1) We can expect the FAA to maintain a "holding" pattern for the degree of risk and complexity currently issued in waivers. Based upon a discussion of the road to full UAS integration, it appears that safe operations over non-participants will be the next level of waivers issued for commercial and civil applications. That said, don't expect the FAA to grant the waivers anytime soon. Administrative change, and genuine safety concerns related to manufacturer certifications and anti-malicious capabilities will put these waivers out for at least another year in our opinion, if not longer.
The FAA appears happy to facilitate the waiver of systems into Class D, C, and even B airspace, given the operator, like Skytec, has successfully demonstrated safe operating procedures and plans. Night operations will continue with certain systems and even operating from a moving vehicle can be authorized, given the right scenarios.
2) Future operations over the general public and beyond line-of-sight will likely require certified hardware and software solutions. The ability to 3D print and deploy open source control software enabled custom drones over people or beyond line-of-site will be difficult.
This appears to be a real boost to the potential degree of separation between manufacturers of higher-end systems and hobby-systems. It appears that cyber and control concerns are driving the interests in certification among hardware and software system components. When we begin to operate over people and beyond line of site, no one seeks to deploy a system vulnerable to exploits or poor component performance.
3) Drone detection and defense will be an ongoing concern and emerging market. Despite this potential, there are real challenges ahead between FCC and FAA regulatory authority. To summarize the problems: an unmanned system is treated as an aircraft in the national airspace. You just can’t take control or beam it out of sky. Equally relevant, under the general interpretation of FCC regulations, radio frequencies and associated privacy rights of individuals broadcasting are protected. That leaves drone defense hardware and software providers in a very "gray" operational area. Not only could you violate FAA or FCC regulations with drone defense actions, you could potentially violate both in a single defense or detection action. This legal gray area is likely to remain in place until we have case law to define the differences when operating a UAS as compared to a HAM radio.
The need and interest for drone defense is there; however, there is conflicting oversight between FAA and FCC on these matters. These issues could take months or years to resolve. All that said, pressure from leaders in critical energy or utility industry sectors will likely move drone defense into the larger FAA regulatory discussion. The issue will continue to be a part of discussions, as FAA explores operational options for unmanned traffic monitoring systems in the months ahead.