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FAA Issues NPRM to Lay Groundwork for Certifying Delivery and Other Types of Drones

BY Zacc Dukowitz
12 February 2020

As the FAA’s Remote ID NPRM continues to collect public comments—there are 12,025 at the moment of writing this post—another recent NPRM from the FAA that proposes a rule for certifying drones for various types of operations, including delivery, has slid under the radar.

wing-drone-delivery-nprm
Photo credit: Wing

This newer NPRM was issued on Monday, February 3, and has only garnered 11 comments as of writing this post. And, at least on its surface, the lack of activity shouldn’t be all that surprising.

While the proposed Remote ID rule runs 211 pages (over 90,000 words) and lays out a long, complex system for regulating remote ID, the proposed drone certification rule is only two pages (just under 2,000 words), providing a general groundwork for the FAA to make future rules to certify specific drones for specific types of operations, such as making deliveries.

The drone certification NPRM is only open for public comment for one month, from 2/3/2020 to 3/4/2020, while the Remote ID NPRM is open for comment for two months, from 12/31/2019 to 3/2/2020.

[Want to make a public comment on the Remote ID NPRM? Check out our guide to commenting, with four major talking points to consider.]

A Potential Game Changer for the Drone Industry

Despite its small size, the drone certification NPRM could represent a big step forward for the drone industry.

Here’s why.

Up until now, if a company wanted to make drone deliveries it had two paths it could take to get permission from the FAA:

  1. Secure Part 107 waivers for the specific operations required to make deliveries, such as flying Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), over people, at night, etc.
  2. Secure Part 135 certification and be recognized as an air carrier, which then allows the company to conduct the types of operations needed to make drone deliveries. (The FAA now says that this second option is “the only path for small drones to carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight”—i.e., to make drone deliveries.)

Currently, only two drone delivery companies have been given permission to conduct deliveries by obtaining Part 135 certification.

These companies are Wing, which holds a Single Pilot Part 135 certification, and UPS subsidiary Flight Forward, which holds the broader Standard Part 135 certification.

[Learn more about the four types of Part 135 certification here on the FAA’s website.]

drone-delivery-amazon-nprm

Photo credit: Amazon Prime Air

A Third Option—Certify the Drone Instead of the Company

The recent drone certification NPRM lays out a new, and much simpler, regulatory path for securing approval to make drone deliveries, which could potentially allow companies to bypass the Part 135 certification process at some point in the future.

Under the NPRM it appears that a company would not need special permission to conduct drone deliveries.

Instead, specific types of drones would be certified to conduct deliveries within the U.S. based on whether they meet certain safety and other requirements. Drone delivery companies would only need to use a certified drone for their deliveries in order to be compliant with the law (along with meeting other Part 107 requirements, such as making sure the drone pilot holds a Remote Pilot Airman’s Certificate).

We are a long way from this reality. This NPRM only begins to open the door for a process to certify types of drones, but it does present a huge potential simplification of the approvals process for drone delivery.

But the idea is exciting—if a company could use a certified drone for deliveries instead of having to obtain Part 135 certification, then the path to scaling drone delivery across the U.S. could be greatly expedited, at least from a regulatory perspective.

Certifying Drones for Specific Operations, Including Delivery

Most of the coverage out there right now about the drone certification NPRM talks about it as a proposed rule for certifying delivery drones.

ups-drone-delivery-nprm
Photo credit: UPS

However, the NPRM does not list specific criteria for certifying delivery drones (or other types of drones). Instead, it lays out a general rule to begin the process of recognizing drones as a “special class” of aircraft, which will then allow the FAA to create certification criteria for various types of drones—including package delivery drones.

That being said, delivery drones are clearly top of mind for the FAA. In the NPRM the FAA writes (bold is ours):

The UAS affected by this policy will include those used for package delivery. Future FAA activity, through either further policy or rulemaking, will address type certification for UAS carrying occupants.

Sounds like we might be seeing an NPRM that proposes specific criteria for certifying delivery drones before too long, and that a similar NPRM may be in the works for passenger drones, too.

What Is an NPRM?

NPRM stands for Notice of Public Rule Making.

These notices are required by law when an independent agency of the U.S. government (like the FAA) wants to add, remove, or change a rule or regulation.

After an NPRM is issued, the U.S. public has a certain amount of time to comment on the rule. When the period for adding comments closes the agency then collects all the comments submitted and considers them as it works toward finalizing the new proposed rule or changes to existing rule(s).

Learn more about why public comments are important on NPRMs this section of our guide to commenting on the Remote ID NPRM. If you need more information on how to comment, the section immediately following covers best practices for making your public comment.

Are you excited about the prospect of specific types of drones being certified to conduct specific types of operations? Share your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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