certified cargo dronesUnderstanding The FAA’s New UAS Type Certification Process – Transport

June 17, 2021by helo-10

From replacing fireworks for Independence Day celebrations to
providing rural package delivery, 2020 demonstrated how the rapid
development of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) is driving innovation
in how society moves goods and performs services. As of March 2021,
the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports there are over 371,000 commercial
drones registered in the United States and over 220,000 certified
remote pilots. All signs suggest these numbers will continue to
rise rapidly in coming years.

With a growing and increasingly diverse group of stakeholders
incorporating UAS into their operations, the FAA notified the public in February 2020, via a
notice of policy and request for comments, that it will begin
accepting applications for type certification of certain classes of
UAS, along with their engines and propellers. This policy went into effect in September 2020. As
of January 2021, over a dozen such applications have been published
in the Federal Register.

Type certification promises to accelerate the timeline for
integrating advanced commercial UAS operations in the marketplace.
As an important component of the FAA’s regulatory framework,
the standards that emerge from the type certification process will
have a lasting impact on the UAS industry and clarify the
government’s priorities for the future of the national
airspace. Stakeholders looking to capitalize on the
multifunctionality of UAS, as well as those in industries most
likely to be affected by broader integration of UAS, need to
understand the likely effects of type certification and what this
suggests about future regulation of the industry. Additionally, as
more UAS take to the skies for commercial operations, policymakers
need to prepare the regulatory environment to enable these vehicles
to smoothly integrate into society while balancing both commercial
and other public interests.

A Primer of Type Certification

The “type” in “type certification” refers to
either a vehicle’s model (e.g., Matternet, Inc.’s Model M2)
or the vehicle’s engine or propeller. These certificates affirm
that a manufacturer is taking the necessary steps to ensure its
products comply with FAA regulations. Without a type certification,
a manufacturer must subject each of its aircraft or
aircraft components to testing and FAA approval, even if they are
identical. Type certification expedites this process, enabling a
manufacturer to demonstrate compliance with regulatory requirements
for a given aircraft or component only once, after which every
identical aircraft, engine, or propeller it creates receives
automatic certification.

These certificates have become an important component of how the
FAA ensures the safe design, construction, operation, and
maintenance of aircraft entering the National Airspace System
(NAS). The FAA and its predecessors have used type certification for more than 90 years for
manned aircraft and aircraft components. The continued
maturation of UAS technologies motivated Congress to authorize a
process for unmanned aircraft type certification under
Section 345 of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act.

Among the industries positioned to benefit from type
certification are those using UAS for package delivery,
agriculture, infrastructure surveillance, and for-hire movement of
goods, but not people. The existing applicants for UAS type
certification range from multinational corporations to emerging
startups. The UAS these applicants submitted for FAA review are
primarily for package and medical supply delivery but range widely
in size, weight, design, and propulsion method.

How Type Certification Fits in the FAA’s Regulatory

Congress authorized the FAA to issue type certificates
and create standards for their issuance under 49 U.S.C. 44701(a)
and 44704, with vehicle or feature-specific requirements defined in
14 CFR parts 23-35. However, these rules and regulations were
drafted with certain assumptions of an aircraft’s appearance
and operation that do not apply to UAS. For example, many of these
standards presume the possibility of direct human intervention from
within the aircraft.

Unsurprisingly, the novel designs and operating features of UAS
do not fit into any of the existing categories of aerial vehicles
for type certification. Instead, UAS are categorized as a special
class under 14 CFR part 21. Part 21 provides the FAA with
flexibility to tailor the certification basis for UAS, including
incorporating aspects of existing airworthiness standards for
aircraft and other products (parts 23-35) while applying entirely
novel, UAS-specific requirements. Type certification
will not be required for all types of UAS. However, for UAS that
weigh over 55 pounds or are designed to engage in operations not
permitted under 14 CFR part 107, type certification can be

To account for the diversity of UAS applications and the pace of
innovation, where possible, the FAA is defining performance-based
safety outcomes rather than the prescriptive technical approach
sometimes used for manned aircraft. Determining the appropriate
level of review and burden of proof to apply for different UAS is a
critical early challenge for the FAA. The FAA tries to adjust the
demands and rigor for each type certificate based on the proposed
operation’s complexity and the safety risks posed. However,
access to information necessary for processing such UAS
applications may be limited, particularly considering the
industry’s rapid evolution.

For example, the process for type certifying passenger aircraft
involves extremely detailed requirements. It can span years, cost
millions of dollars, and require thousands of hours of flight
testing to prove compliance. This level of detail is likely
inappropriate for UAS that do not transport people. Nonetheless,
the FAA has not offered a timeline for granting type certificates;
in the agency’s
September 2020 Notice of Policy
, they responded to questions
about certification timelines and comments advocating for a more
rapid process by noting, “The certification timeline for each
project will vary significantly depending on the project details,
scope, and complexity. Due to these many variables, the FAA is
unable to publish a timeline specific to the type certification of
UAS that would be widely applicable.”

How Manufacturers Receive Type Certification

As the UAS industry “got off the ground,” additional
rules and guidance became necessary to inform stakeholders’
operations and facilitate scaling. The rigor, transparency, and
consensus building required to grant type certificates provide the
industry with guidance while also producing safer and more reliable
outcomes and building trust with the public. Additionally, once
type certified, a manufacturer can mass-produce that model and
receive streamlined processing for a standard airworthiness
certificate. Both certifications are prerequisites to receiving the
much sought-after 14 CFR part 135 certification under which the FAA
permits operators to use UAS for a wide range of commercial
activities, including package delivery.

The FAA identified five phases to the certification
process, each with its own set of required filings and testing
requirements: (1) conceptual design, (2) requirements definition,
(3) compliance planning, (4) implementation, and (5)
post-certification activities.

Early phases require applicants to submit details of the product
to be type certified, including design specifications, intended
use, and proposed area of operations. The FAA uses a safety-first approach in evaluating each
submission through its four-component Safety Management System
(SMS). As part of this rigorous process, the FAA identifies hazards
associated with each proposed UAS function. For each hazard, the
agency determines the necessary controls or mitigation steps to
ensure the UAS’ safe operations, including customized
airworthiness requirements or operational limitations. Once the FAA
determines an initial set of airworthiness criteria, it publishes
its requirements for each applicant in a public notice, enabling
the public to comment on the prescribed standards and operational
requirements for one month. The FAA must respond to substantive
public comments before finalizing an applicant’s tailored
certification basis.

While not every part of the SMS process is made public, the
published notices lend insight into the FAA’s approach to UAS
type certification. Notably, the airworthiness criteria and
additional standards have been grouped into three categories. The
first addresses the component’s design and construction,
assigning prescriptive or performance-based standards for the
UAS’ hardware, software, and operations. The second category
provides for certain operating limitations and information the
manufacturer must provide to its users. Finally, the FAA prescribes
certain testing requirements, including testing for durability,
reliability, and functionality after probable failures. Applicants
prove that their proposed UAS, engine, or propeller complies with
these standards by submitting evidence of changes made to its
design or new testing data and studies. Often, applicants must
demonstrate their equipment’s functionality in person for

Under current procedures, each type certification application
faces different compliance requirements based on its intended
operations; therefore, the standards applied to Company A’s
UAS, engine, or propeller may differ from those imposed on Company
B, even if they share many common attributes. Requirements imposed
on each applicant are customized around the potential risks posed
by that UAS’ operations. Specific attributes include the
UAS’ size, operational speed and altitude, and ability for the
pilot to intervene during operations.

This approach is intended “to provide a flexible process
until generally applicable UAS airworthiness standards are
identified and established.” Categories that may eventually have generally
applicable standards include vehicle hardware and design (e.g.,
markings/colorings, strobe lighting, safety equipment, and battery
performance), software operations (e.g., cybersecurity and
connectivity), in-flight requirements (e.g., payload limits, noise
output, and collision avoidance), as well as how a pilot and other
users interact with the vehicle. However, the timeline for best
practices and industry consensus that can serve as the basis for
these general standards to emerge is uncertain.

Preparing for a UAS-Enabled Future

The significance of type certification goes beyond its impact on
manufacturers; it signals that Congress and the FAA are entering a
new phase of governing the UAS industry. Currently, the FAA
requires waivers or exceptions to allow UAS operators or
manufacturers to depart from restrictions like flying beyond visual
line of sight, over people, or with certain cargo. This approach is
unsustainable if the industry is to continue to grow and innovate
at the current rate. Type certification would align the UAS
industry with other aerial and non-aerial vehicles.

Recent FAA rulemaking orders,
notably the December 2020 changes to Part 107 regarding UAS
operations over people and vehicles as well as at night, highlight
that the FAA is willing to adapt its UAS regulatory framework.
However, the agency aims to codify new rules only when the relevant
technologies and industry best practices have matured sufficiently.
The FAA’s approach to the type certification process is
consistent with that principle.

This incremental approach is effective at promoting safety, but
technological, social, and economic forces in the UAS industry
continue to outpace the regulations that oversee them. Scaling UAS
uses will redefine how goods, and eventually people, are moved and
services are provided, and it can potentially reshape entire
economic sectors and communities. Consider a scenario where UAS could deliver even a
fraction of the 1.5 million packages transported throughout New
York City every day. Would architects design buildings differently
to accommodate UAS? Would individuals want to live near heavy UAS
thoroughfares, given the perceived effects on privacy? How will
local law enforcement prevent unwanted applications of UAS?

Countless such questions can, and should, be asked. Alone, type
certification does not hold these answers, but it can be part of
the solution. Businesses and governments should have plans in place
that account for the opportunities and challenges a UAS-enabled
future creates and consider how they can capitalize on UAS’
diverse functionality. Additionally, stakeholders should consider
using the FAA’s public comment periods to voice
their support or concerns. As this industry reaches new heights,
the window for proactive action remains open; however, if
stakeholders wait too long, they may see this opportunity fly

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.

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