The new FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) drone rules were announced on 28th December 2020. The first rule amends Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations part 107 (14 CFR part 107). Thereby permitting the flying of small drones over people and at night, under certain conditions. The second rule requires Remote identification (Remote ID) of all drones. Let’s take a closer look at what the two new rules entail:

1. Drone Operations Over People and at Night

Operating drones over people poses certain risks. To mitigate those risks, the FAA has categorized drone Operation Over People (OOP) into 4 major categories:

Category 1

Operations under category 1 can be carried out if the drone checks all of the following requirements:

  • Weighs 0.55 pounds (250g) or less (inclusive of payload) from takeoff till landing.
  • Does not contain any exposed rotating parts that can cause injury.
  • The drone shouldn’t be in sustained flight over people.

Exposed Rotating Parts:

The drone will have to be equipped with propeller guards or shrouds in order to comply with this requirement. Alternatively, a fixed-wing drone under the same weight category can be used.

Sustained Flight:

The FAA defines sustained flight as “hovering above the heads of persons gathered in an open-air assembly, flying back and forth over an open-air assembly, or circling above the assembly in such a way that the small unmanned aircraft remains above some part of the assembly”. Therefore, sustained flight of all forms under any category is suspended unless the small unmanned aircraft has the required remote identification and broadcasting system.

Category 2

This category comprises drones weighing over 0.55 pounds and performance-based eligibility. To be eligible to fly your drone under this category, you must meet the following requirements:

  • Declaration of compliance (Injury severity limit: 11 ft-lbs)
  • Does not contain any exposed rotating parts that can cause injury.
  • The drone shouldn’t be in sustained flight over people.
  • The drone shouldn’t contain any safety defects.
  • The drone must display a label indicating Category 2 eligibility

Declaration of compliance:

This is a critical safety requirement for Category 2 and Category 3 drones. A declaration of compliance is a requirement that is to be fulfilled by the drone manufacturer. Through FAA-accepted means of testing, the manufacturer should demonstrate the safety of the drone. The FAA has set an injury severity limit for Category 2 drones as 11 ft-lbs. What this means is that the drone should not be capable of causing an injury that is more severe than an injury caused by a transfer of 11 ft-lbs of kinetic energy from a rigid object. Therefore, only those drones that have been certified as compliant can be flown under Category 2 or 3.

Display label:

Every drone flown under Category 2 and 3 must display a label indicating its eligibility for its respective category. The FAA has not issued any specifics on the format of the label. However, the label must be legible and in English. The label will assist the FAA in the oversight of drone operations over people safely.

Category 3

Since Category 3 drones pose a higher risk than Category 2, they are subject to a higher injury severity limit along with these additional requirements:

  • Declaration of compliance (Injury severity limit: 25 ft-lbs)
  • Does not contain any exposed rotating parts that can cause injury.
  • The drone shouldn’t be in sustained flight over people.
  • The drone shouldn’t contain any safety defects.
  • The drone must display a label indicating Category 3 eligibility

Operating Limitations for Category 3 Drones:

Drones under Category 3 are also subject to certain operating limitations unlike category 2. The FAA has stated that these additional limitations are necessary to mitigate the risk of injury from heavier drones. The limitations mandate that drones are prohibited over open-air assemblies unless:

  • The operation is within or over closed- or restricted-access sites, and everyone within that site has been notified that a drone may fly over them.
  • The drone doesn’t maintain sustained flight over non-participating people outdoors or indoors.

Category 4

This category consists of drones that have been issued an airworthiness certificate under part 21 in accordance with part 107. Airworthiness certification is essential for complex drone operations. This category allows such drones to be flown over people, thereby, paving the way for delivery and autonomous drones.

Thus, drones weighing under 55 pounds and outside of Category 3 will fall under Category 4. They will require an airworthiness certification to operate over people. Category 4 drones cannot maintain sustained flight over people unless they meet Remote ID and broadcasting requirements.

Operations at Night

To fly a drone at night required a waiver prior to this rule. However, with that scraped off, remote pilots can now fly their drones at night by fulfilling some basic requirements:

  • Drones must be equipped with anti-collision lighting that is visible for 3 statute miles. (Here is a guide to the best anti-collision lighting for drones)
  • The remote pilot in command has completed an updated knowledge test or recurrent training, as applicable, to ensure familiarity with the risks and appropriate mitigations for nighttime operations.

In addition to installing anti-collision lighting, the lights must have a flash-rate sufficient to avoid a collision. Also, all remote pilots will need to take an updated aeronautical knowledge test. Even remote pilots under part 61 who already have a remote pilot certificate will have to take the updated test. The updated test and recurrent training on night operations will be made available on FAA’s website by the second week of February 2020.

Remote ID

The Remote ID rule has been in the works for quite a long time. This is a major step towards the full “integration of drones” into the Americal airspace. The remote identification of drones aims to provide identification of drones and locations of their control stations to national security and law enforcement agencies. FAA said in a press release that this would reduce the risk of interference of drones with other aircraft and people on the ground.

“The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns,” said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson. “They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages.”

The FAA has outlined three ways to comply with the Remote ID operational requirements:

  1. Operate a standard Remote ID drone that broadcasts identification and location information of the drone and control station;
  2. Operate a drone with a Remote ID broadcast module (may be a separate device attached to the drone), which broadcasts identification, location, and take-off information; or
  3. Operate a drone without Remote ID but at specific FAA-recognized identification areas.

The FAA has stated that these new drone rules will come into effect by the end of February 2020. However, the Remote ID rule includes two compliance dates. Drone manufacturers will have 18 months to begin producing drones with Remote ID, with operators having an additional year to start using drones with Remote ID.