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FAA Issues Waiver to Fly Drones Equipped with Parachutes Over People

BY Zacc Dukowitz
12 June 2019

The FAA recently issued a Part 107 waiver to the Hensel Phelps Construction Company of Washington, D.C. to fly over people using a drone equipped with a parachute.

FAA-Drone-Waiver-Hensel-Phelps
Photo credit: Hensel Phelps

The drone that will be used for these operations is a DJI Phantom 4 rigged with their SafeAir Phantom Parachute System, which is created by Israeli-based ParaZero. According to ParaZero, this is the first time a drone with a parachute has ever been approved by the FAA for flights over people.

Although the waiver does not “certify or approve the parachute that will be used” it does determine that the applicants sufficiently met the ASTM standard design specifications for UAS parachutes, finding that the system could be used safely in operations over people.

[Want to dive into the details? Read the full Hensel Phelps waiver here.]

How the Waiver Was Obtained

According to the FAA, the process followed to obtain this waiver was unique in that it was the first time the FAA worked closely with those in private industry to:

  • Develop a publically available standard
  • Ensure the testing and data collected acceptably met that standard
  • Issue a waiver using an industry standard as a basis for determining the safety of a proposed drone operation

This is big news because it creates a path that others can follow to pursue their own waivers to fly over people, and a model for how this process could work for other Part 107 waivers.

This process is scalable and available to other applicants who propose to use the same drone and parachute combination.

The FAA

Although we’ve heard of the FAA working closely with companies as they go through the waiver process, the information obtained during that process is usually proprietary and not publicly shared.

Which means two things—one, that the waiver process for operations like flying over people or BVLOS, which are protracted and complex, has historically been limited with those who have deep enough pockets to carry out a long-term effort; and two, that, in some ways, each company has to start from scratch when it comes to adequately addressing safety concerns for various waiver applications.

The FAA has demonstrated a truly collaborative approach, through which they help develop the ASTM standard, work together in the UASIPP, and provide feedback on the waiver applications and documentation.

– Avi Lozowick, Vice President of Policy and Strategy at ParaZero

By developing a publically available standard for safety against which a waiver application can be compared the FAA is taking steps toward streamlining the waiver approval process, and helping to democratize it for those who may not have the same resources as a big, established company.

faa-parachute
Photo credit: FAA

Waivers to Fly Over People

A 107.39 waiver (i.e., a waiver to fly over people) has historically been one of the most difficult types of waivers to obtain from the FAA. That’s because applicants have had the burden of proving that they can fly over people safely, which means they must demonstrate preparedness for any foreseeable scenario that could impact the safety of those below.

Given that there are a lot of people in areas where commercial drone pilots might want to work, the inability to fly over them does represent a hindrance, albeit a necessary one, to the expansion of the drone industry.

But all of that could soon change.

In January of this year, the FAA shared a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) with a draft for new UAS regulations that would allow flights over people and flying at night, two operations currently prohibited by the Part 107 rules.

Under the proposed rules, FAA-approved flights over people would fall into three categories:

  • Category 1—all sUAS less than 0.55 lbs. permitted to fly over people
  • Category 2—sUAS greater than 0.55 lbs. can be flown over people if the manufacturer has proven that a resulting injury to any person will be under a specified severity threshold. Additionally, the sUAS must have no exposed rotating parts that could lacerate skin or have any FAA-identified safety defect.
  • Category 3—sUAS greater than 0.55 lbs. can be flown over people if the manufacturer has proven that a resulting injury to any person will be under a specified severity threshold, but the severity of the injury can be higher than what’s permitted in Category 2. Like Category 2, the sUAS must have no exposed rotating parts that could lacerate skin or have any FAA-identified safety defect.

To compensate for the higher injury threshold, Category 3 includes additional operational limits to lessen the chance of injury. Additional stipulations for Category 3 operations include:

  • Cannot operate over an open-air assembly of people
  • The operation must take place over a closed- or restricted-access site
  • The sUAS may transit but not hover over people

Right now it’s unclear when these new rules might go into effect. For more information, visit this webpage to see the Operation of UAS Over People NPRM.

Want to See All the 107.39 Waivers that Have Been Issued to Date?

To see all the 107.39 waivers the FAA has issued go to this page on the FAA’s website and search “107.39”:

waivers-to-fly-over-people

What do you think—will the new rules for flying at night and over people go into effect soon? Share your thoughts on this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

 

 

Zacc Dukowitz

Contributing Writer

A writer with professional experience in education technology and digital marketing, Zacc Dukowitz is passionate about reporting on the drone industry at a time when UAVs can help us live better lives. Zacc also holds the rank of nidan in Aikido, a Japanese martial art, and is a widely published fiction writer. Zacc has an MFA from the University of Florida and a BA from St. John's College. Follow @zaccdukowitz or check out zaccdukowitz.com to read his work.

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