FAA Waivers Preview Future Possibilities of Expanded Drone Operations

Employees at an oil and gas company in Texas recently used a small unmanned aircraft system, also known as a drone, to conduct inspections while social distancing, ensuring their safety and the safety of those around them. A special waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration made this operation possible, and it is just one of many examples of waivers being used effectively by businesses and first responders to reach beyond the current sUAS regulations.

In August 2016, the FAA’s sUAS rule, also known as Part 107, went into effect. The rule requires drone pilots to fly below 400 feet, within visual line of sight, away from people and during daylight hours, among directions for other operations. Recognizing the need for the rule to be flexible to foster innovation, however, the FAA created a waiver process that allows for expanded UAS operations with the approval of the agency. 

My organization, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, recently conducted an analysis of the more than 4,100 waivers the FAA has granted for expanded drone operations over the past four years. We found waivers were issued in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Nationwide, 92 percent of waivers were granted to enable nighttime operations, but UAS pilots also received permission for flights over people, beyond line of sight and operating multiple drones at the same time.

The analysis showed first responders and public safety agencies are increasingly taking advantage of the waiver process to contribute to the greater good across the country, receiving about 20 percent of all waivers granted to organizations. For example, a fire department in California was granted a waiver to fly UAS at night, providing firefighters a bird’s eye view of emergency situations around the clock. A police department in Texas has received a similar waiver, allowing its officers to conduct aerial investigations of automobile and truck accidents at all hours.

First responders are not the only ones taking advantage of expanded operations. About 88 percent of all waivers granted to service organizations went to small businesses with fewer than 10 employees and annual revenue of less than $1 million. These companies have used drones to conduct infrastructure inspections, take aerial photographs of real estate, survey crops to improve irrigation and more. In some communities, drones have successfully delivered everything from candy to critical medical supplies.

The waivers that have been granted so far demonstrate these expanded operations are being conducted safely. They are also helping businesses save time and money and enabling first responders and public safety agencies to save lives. Yet there is still room for improvement.

Last year, I chaired a task force of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee that recommended the FAA streamline the waiver process. In response, the FAA recently announced several initiatives, including expediting the renewal application process for operators, increasing transparency and providing more responsive feedback to waivers that are not approved.

As helpful as these waivers have been, and continue to be, even a streamlined process is not a long-term solution for unlocking the economic and societal benefits of drones. To truly capitalize on what is possible, we need federal rules that will allow for expanded operations without the need for case-by-case applications and approvals.

For expanding flights over people and beyond visual line of sight, remote identification regulations are needed to enable authorities to identify and track drones flying in the airspace. Rulemaking for remote ID is currently underway and is expected to be finalized later this year. However, the FAA should not wait to implement a regulation for remote ID before proceeding with rules for expanded operations. Rulemaking takes time, and the FAA should continue the process for expanded operations concurrently with remote ID to avoid any unnecessary delays.

The drone industry has demonstrated it is ready to take full advantage of the possibilities that expanded operations provide. Now, the FAA must do all it can to rapidly move forward with rulemakings to enable the new and enhanced services that are made possible thanks to unmanned technology.

Brian Wynne is the president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

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