FAA Pushes Type Certification Forward, Opening Airworthiness Criteria for Making 10 Drones Special Class Aircraft to Public Comment

BY Zacc Dukowitz
25 November 2020

This week the FAA published airworthiness criteria for certifying 10 different drones as special aircraft.

3DR’s H520-G Government Services drone

According to the FAA, the criteria proposed for these 10 drones provide a level of safety equivalent to the level of safety provided by existing airworthiness standards for other types of aircraft.

The criteria create a clear path for other drone companies to follow in trying to secure type certification for their drones.

This is a crucial step to enabling more complex drone operations beyond what is allowed under the small unmanned aircraft rule (Part 107), including package delivery.

– The FAA

This is big news.

Hidden in the dry language of the phrase type certification is the idea of providing an alternate path for securing permission to perform drone operations that are prohibited by the Part 107 rules, like flying Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) or at night.

Right now, in order to conduct an operation that is prohibited by the Part 107 rules, you must receive a waiver to do so. But, hypothetically, if a drone has been certified to perform a certain type of operation—for example, flying at night—then the pilot would not need any extra permission from the FAA to conduct that operation, since the drone will have essentially been pre-approved for it.

This means that type certifications could present a way to fast-track approvals for prohibited operations, bringing them more quickly to commercial sectors than other avenues, like new rules or expedited waiver processes.

The 10 Drones Up for Type Certification

The airworthiness criteria for the 10 drones that are being considered for type certification are all currently open to public comment (see the list below for links to each aircraft’s criteria).

Anyone who is interested can comment on the proposed criteria for each of these 10 drones. Unlike with some NPRMs, which might be open for comment for as long as three months, the comment period in this instance is just one month, from late November to late December (specific dates vary).

Wingcopter’s GmbH drone

Here are the 10 drones being considered for type certification, with links to each one’s public comment page:

The FAA has clarified that this review period is just a step in the certification process and does not indicate that any of these drones has earned a type certificate yet.

The final determination regarding whether each of these drones meets FAA safety requirements, as is required for type certification, will occur after each applicant demonstrates they have complied with these requirements.

The NPRM No One Noticed

In February of this year, as the FAA’s Remote ID NPRM drew over fifty thousand concerned comments, another NPRM passed quietly through the comment period with hardly any discussion.

This NPRM proposed a new rule for certifying drones for various operations, laying out the groundwork for providing drone type certifications.

Matternet’s M2 drone

At the time, the most newsworthy feature of the NPRM was that, while it proposed a general path for allowing drones to be certified for different types of missions, it specifically mentioned certifying drones for package delivery.

Currently, the only path for securing permission to conduct drone deliveries is the Part 135 certification process, which essentially certifies a company to conduct a drone airline.

Getting a Part 135 is a long and expensive process, held by only a few subsidiaries of large companies: UPS’s Flight Forward, Alphabet’s Wing, and Amazon’s Prime Air.

But if drone delivery—or any other type of commercial application currently held back by regulatory prohibitions—can be conducted by anyone using a drone certified for it, this could open up the field dramatically.

The development of airworthy, durable, and reliable unmanned aircraft is a crucial step forward for this innovative sector. Type certification will help increase both public and regulatory confidence in drone technology as operations become more advanced.

– Dr. Michael C. Romanowski, director of Aircraft Certification Service Policy and Innovation

It is remarkable that the FAA has moved forward so quickly with proposing type certifications for specific aircraft, and may bode well for the normalization of BVLOS, as well as other types of prohibited operations.

It will be interesting to see whether anyone is concerned about the certifications proposed in this first batch of aircrafts, and what happens next regarding permissions to fly in ways that currently require a Part 107 waiver.

Excited about the FAA pushing forward type certification for drones? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.

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