The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced that if permission is granted, Phoenix Air Unmanned, uAvionix, Zipline, and UPS Flight Forward will be able to expand FAA-approved Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone operations. The data collected from these operations will contribute to the FAA's ongoing policy and rulemaking activities. The request for comment focuses on specific aspects of BVLOS drone operations, including detect and avoid, Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM), and shielded operations.
The drone industry has been eagerly awaiting an official rulemaking on BVLOS flight for several years. BVLOS flight enables remote operations such as perimeter security and long-range infrastructure inspection without human presence. It also has the potential to significantly enhance the commercial viability of drone delivery projects, industrial inspections, power line inspections, and more. While the BVLOS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) was formed in June 2021 and published its findings in March 2022, the FAA has not yet released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on BVLOS flight. Instead, the agency has increased the pace of BVLOS waivers to gather more data and advance limited advanced operations.
The proposed BVLOS permissions for Phoenix Air, uAvionix, Zipline, and UPS Flight Forward could accelerate the rulemaking process by providing a larger dataset and demonstrating the safety case. Public comments on the issue offer insights into the challenges the FAA faces in integrating drones into the airspace.
Stakeholders from the drone industry generally support the permissions and provide relevant suggestions regarding technology and operational guidelines. However, comments from the public and manned aircraft stakeholder groups are less favorable. Concerns are raised by hot air balloon pilots, paragliders, recreational airplane flyers, and helicopter pilots who believe that BVLOS flight permissions below 400 feet could pose risks to their operations. They emphasize the importance of detect and avoid capabilities, particularly as slower vehicles like hot air balloons are more vulnerable to faster and agile drones. These comments reflect legitimate concerns from other airspace stakeholders.
Comments from the general public reveal that the drone industry still has work to do in gaining public acceptance. Concerns range from predictable issues such as noise and privacy to less common worries about potential interruptions to cell phone or internet services. Some comments use adjectives like "dangerous," "deadly," or "madness." Many express fear regarding the increase in drones in the airspace.
With fewer than 200 comments currently posted, it is challenging to determine if they represent a significant percentage of the public. However, they provide insight into the conflicting pressures faced by the FAA and emphasize the importance of community engagement alongside technological advancements in drone integration.
Public comments on docket FAA-2023-1256 will close on June 14, 2023.