U.S. aviation regulators plan to craft new safety standards for specific unmanned-aircraft models, the biggest step yet toward eventually authorizing widespread delivery of packages by drones.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s proposal, disclosed on Monday in a Federal Register filing, is couched in dry bureaucratic language but amounts to a major policy and regulatory win for
and other companies seeking to gain approval for various types of drones for small-package delivery fleets.
The FAA for the first time formally laid out a policy intended to vet the design and reliability of drones, similar to how it determines the safety of gliders and other light aircraft.
By announcing the initiative and seeking public comment, the agency started down the path to certify drones as a “special class” of aircraft—essentially seeking to give them some of the regulatory certainty that airliners, business jets, helicopters and small private planes enjoy.
Routine drone deliveries to U.S. consumers are still years away, and the FAA didn’t spell out a timeline. Monday’s announcement emphasized that the FAA has extensive work to do on a range of operational issues. The agency, for instance, needs to complete rules for remote identification of more than 400,000 drones registered for commercial operations.
Amazon and other champions of commercial drones have long argued that certifying particular drone models is essential to promote rapid growth of package-delivery options. An Amazon spokesman declined to comment.
The FAA said in Monday’s policy statement that its ultimate goal is to promote full integration of an array of drones and autonomous airborne taxis into U.S. airspace, but for now the vehicles “affected by this policy will include those used for package delivery.”
Until now, the FAA’s drone office largely has relied on—and sometimes offered waivers from—existing regulations written for traditional aircraft flown by pilots on board. But typically, such solutions strictly limit the type of drones companies can use, spell out precisely where they can fly and detail other operating restrictions.
In one fell swoop, the FAA now has decided to craft an entirely new regulatory scheme that would certify the safety of specific types of drones and give operators significantly greater latitude to determine how they are flown. Once a specific model is certified, theoretically it would be able to operate throughout the U.S., as long as the FAA approved related procedures for maintenance, pilot training and other requirements.
United Parcel Service Inc. received FAA approval last March to set up a fleet of drones for delivery of medical supplies and other small packages within certain closely circumscribed areas, such as hospital campuses. But that decision didn’t explicitly certify the safety of any specific drones. UPS also was required to seek agency approval for each of the locations it intends to serve.
The UPS approval followed a decision by the FAA granting Alphabet Inc.’s Wing Aviation unit initial authorization for a more limited program delivering consumer goods in a rural area around Blacksburg, Va.
By contrast, Amazon and other companies have sought to open up widespread package deliveries by pushing for federal certification of specific models or families of drones, which then could be used broadly without additional FAA approvals.
Once particular models are approved, the FAA suggested it may embrace sweeping, industry-generated standards as a regulatory strategy.
Looking ahead, the FAA said it would develop further policies or regulations covering unmanned aerial vehicles designed to transport people
Monday’s move opens the door for case-by-case certification of drone models submitted by operators or manufacturers, even as the agency considers generally applicable standards across the industry. The aim, according to the FAA, is to provide clarity to the public regarding existing requirements.
Separately, Amazon last year asked for an exemption to make commercial deliveries under part of the FAA’s current regulations used to oversee charter airlines. UPS and Wing Aviation already have such exemptions.
Write to Andy Pasztor at [email protected]
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