The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed certifying some drones as a new “special class” of aircraft, a step toward greater integration of unmanned aircraft into controlled airspace and enabling advanced operations, such as delivery services.
The notice of policy released by the FAA proposes to issue type certificates for drones with no occupants onboard under 14 CFR § 21.17(b), typically used for certifying special class aircraft with unusual features — such as gliders and balloons. Through this route, manufacturers can pick and choose from various aircraft requirements in a process better suited to novel designs.
The FAA specified that drones used for package delivery will be affected by the policy. It does not appear to be limited in scope based on UAS weight, applying to drones both above and below the small UAS limit of 55 lbs. The FAA did not respond to requests for clarification.
The agency also stated that type certification of unmanned aircraft carrying occupants will be decided by “future FAA activity through either further policy or rulemaking,” clarifying that this policy change will not impact autonomous urban air mobility operations.
“This proposed policy applies only to the procedures for the type certification of UAS, and is not intended to establish policy impacting other FAA rules on unmanned aircraft, such as operations, pilot certification, or maintenance,” the notice of policy states. The document is open to public comments until March 4.
With companies including Alphabet subsidiary Wing, UPS Flight Forward, and Amazon Prime Air racing to roll out drone delivery services, this policy proposal represents a crucial move by the FAA to create a regulatory path toward allowing more advanced drone operations — flight beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and over people — that scalable delivery services will require. The agency’s proposed rules for remote identification of drones, released in December, are another critical building block, though the timeline for final rulemaking and implementing remote ID stretches out five years — far longer than industry players hope to wait.
In an anonymous industry survey conducted by Avionics International at the end of 2019, many respondents identified regulatory momentum and progress in certification requirements as their greatest concern for advanced unmanned aircraft operations and urban air mobility in 2020.
Just one month into the year, significant progress has been made by the FAA, which recently recognized six urban air mobility aircraft as “well along” in the certification process, and has now released policy and rulemaking proposals for unmanned aircraft type certification and remote ID.
Respondents also noted a lack of clarity on the requirements for BVLOS operations and detect-and-avoid systems for unmanned aircraft, which the FAA has granted waivers for through the UAS Integration Pilot Program — with and without the use of ground radar — but has not yet commented on broader conditions for enablement.
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But initial reactions indicate widespread support for the FAA’s proposed type certification policy, with members of the industry eager to move toward greater integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.
“We broadly support the FAA’s announcement for type certification of certain UAS as a special class of aircraft,” said Brian Wynne, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). “We are pleased that the FAA recognizes that unmanned aircraft require particularized airworthiness criteria for package delivery operations of UAS. This new type of certification proposed will streamline the approval for those wishing to use UAS for this purpose and will help pave the way for widespread UAS deliveries in the future.”
AirMap, a provider of unmanned traffic management services, also voiced its approval. “The change of policy on UAS type certification is good for enterprise drone operations, and we broadly support this change by the FAA,” Jacob Ruytenbeek, director of government affairs at AirMap, told Avionics International.
“It is encouraging to see the FAA proposing innovative policy that will make type certification for UAS easier, more standardized, and ultimately cheaper,” Andrew Elefant, director of legal and policy at Kittyhawk, told Avionics. “This will make it easier to build and certify the aircraft that will power drone delivery.”
While the FAA continues its “crawl, walk, run” regulatory approach to unmanned aircraft, companies are racing to secure a foothold in the drone delivery business. UPS Flight Forward, which obtained the FAA’s first Standard Part 135 certification for drone delivery, is focused on healthcare logistics and has completed over 1,900 successful flights delivering more than 8,000 lab samples on the WakeMed hospital campus system in Raleigh, North Carolina.
UPS is expanding its services to the University of California San Diego (UCSD) health system as well as Henry Schein, a provider of healthcare solutions to office-based practitioners, and the company confirmed at a recent conference it is authorized to receive payment for commercial BVLOS flights.
U.S.-based drone-maker Matternet, which supplies its M2 drones to UPS, recently announced it raised additional capital from McKesson Ventures, joining Boeing, Sony and Mercedes-Benz as strategic investors. Matternet’s partnership with Swiss Post in Switzerland, which was grounded last year after a drone crashed, also recently resumed in January.
“Matternet supports the FAA’s efforts in developing and clarifying the path to type certification of UAS,” a representative for the company told Avionics.
Wing was granted a more limited Part 135 air carrier license in April 2019, but has since received a Standard Part 135 similar to UPS, according to the company. Wing currently operates in Canberra and Logan, Australia; Helsinki, Finland; and Christianburg, Va. To date, Wing has made “over 5,000 on-demand deliveries to the yards of households across three continents,” the company told Avionics.
“Additionally, we have tested our technology extensively in Australia, Europe, and the U.S., having conducted more than 80,000 test flights since the company was created in 2012,” said Alexa Dennett, head of marketing and communications at Wing, adding that the company flies BVLOS across all delivery locations.
Amazon Prime Air applied for its commercial drone delivery license in August, also requesting a number of other waivers and exemptions. The company intends to offer 30-minute delivery when possible, using its MK27 drone, which has a maximum gross takeoff weight of 88 lbs, max payload of 5 lbs and a range of 15 miles round-trip. In its FAA filing, Amazon said it had “already applied for a type certificate for the MK27,” a statement neither Amazon nor the FAA were willing to clarify.
Aquiline Drones, a Hartford, Ct.-based startup and OEM seeking to offer a wide suite of unmanned aircraft services, is “finalizing the purchase of a small airline making us one of four drone airline companies in the US operating under an FAA [Part] 135 Air Carrier Certificate,” according to CEO Barry Alexander, citing Wing, UPS Flight Forward and Amazon Prime Air as the other three. Avionics has not been able to verify if Amazon has received its operations license.
Uber also intends to use drones to augment — rather than replace — its existing driver-based Uber Eats food delivery service. In October, the rideshare giant unveiled a new design with six electric motors and tilting wings for efficient forward flight. Uber said at that time it was still searching for a manufacturer to produce the drone.
Uber confirmed to Avionics it has applied for a Part 135 certificate for commercial drone delivery operations.
This article has been updated with a statement from Matternet, as well as a clarification from Wing regarding its Part 135 certification.