The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released decisions on several Petitions for Exemption from commercial Uncrewed Aircraft System (UAS) operators seeking to conduct beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations without the use of visual observers (VOs). These Petitions were opened for public comment in June of this year along with a broader request for comment on UAS BVLOS operations in general. NAAA provided comments for each of these
, alongside several other industry partners.
On September 6, 2023, the FAA granted UPS Flight Forward, Inc. (UPSFF) an amended Exemption
for Part 135 package delivery operations utilizing its Matternet M2 UAS. UPSFF will now be permitted to utilize its Ground-Based Surveillance System (GBSS) in lieu of VOs to conduct BVLOS operations.
NAAA submitted comments
on UPSFF’s Petition for Exemption in June, with a primary concern being a lack of evidence supporting the efficacy of this GBSS with respect to low-altitude crewed Part 137 operations. In their response to NAAA’s comments, the FAA clarified that this exemption enables the petitioner’s operations to use its GBSS with the associated display tool, which combined make up its detect and avoid (DAA) system, once the system is approved and documented in their OpSpecs. This exemption does not authorize the system itself.
The FAA pointed to the potential benefits of a technical solution, such as GBSS, that avoid the human factor challenges of reliance on VOs for deconfliction. Such challenges would include, but not be limited to, fatigue and distraction. A collision and avoidance plan will be required to be submitted to the FAA for each area where the system will operate, and a NOTAM (D) indicating the actual area to be flown each day, as defined by a point and the minimum radius, must be filed. This decision specifically states: “Commercial agricultural aircraft operators and others engaged in aviation activities at altitudes below 400 ft. AGL can maintain awareness of UA activities in their areas of operation by regularly reviewing these NOTAMs.”
The Conditions & Limitations to this Exemption, however, explicitly uphold right-of-way rules
stating “The PIC must ensure that the UA remain clear of, and give way to, any manned aircraft at all times…”
On September 18, 2023, the FAA granted Zipline, Inc. a similar amended Exemption
for Part 135 package delivery operations utilizing UAS. Zipline will now be permitted to utilize its proprietary DAA technology in lieu of VOs to conduct BVLOS operations. The FAA cited the above UPSFF Exemption, stating that Zipline’s reasons for requesting an exemption were “similar in all material respects to relief previously granted.”
Further, “the reasons stated by the FAA for granting [the UPSFF Exemption] also apply to [Zipline’s] situation.”
As with UPSFF, the FAA approved Zipline’s use of its DAA technology in lieu of VOs to conduct BVLOS operations but did not approve the DAA technology itself.
The FAA indirectly referenced the other Exemptions recently granted and made clear their intentions for future rulemaking, stating:
“The exemptions that have been issued contain specific conditions and limitations related to data collection and will enable the FAA to obtain the information that it needs to provide the basis for further rulemaking efforts. The FAA intends for this exemption to add to the foundational framework to safely enable UAS cargo delivery operations for compensation or hire within the NAS that will ultimately be reflected in a final rule. The FAA views this exemption, and the other exemptions it has issued, as steps toward rulemaking.”
On September 20, 2023, the FAA granted uAvionix Corp. a similar Exemption
. This Exemption differed, though, in that FAA’s approval of their DAA system “explicitly includes approval of the Vantis surveillance and communications link capabilities as a third-party service provider when the Vantis network is used…”
In this Exemption, the FAA also provided insight to its philosophy on DAA system approval:
“DAA technology comes in various forms such as third-party service providers, on-board DAA systems capable of detecting other aircraft by means of acoustics or radar and ground based DAA systems that provide live feeds directly to a UA. The FAA recognizes that these examples are not all-encompassing, and that industry will continue to develop different ways for UA to detect and avoid other aircraft during BVLOS operations. Some DAA systems may be more beneficial for certain types of operation. For example, an operator conducting a linear infrastructure inspection may choose to use an on-board DAA system, as opposed to a third-party service provider, as that type of operation would account for more limited airborne traffic in the proximity to the infrastructure in which is the only airspace that those operations will occur. Conversely, a package delivery operator may choose to utilize a third-party service provider which could provide a larger scale airborne traffic layout along multiple routes of flight. The FAA does not intend to specify which DAA system is applicable to which type of operation; rather, the FAA is requiring the operator to use a system that is able to detect ADS-B equipped and non-ADS-B equipped (cooperative and non-cooperative) aircraft in order to remain “well clear” of other detected aircraft. For the purposes of this exemption, “well clear” means maintaining a horizontal distance of 2,000 feet and 250 feet above and below a detected aircraft…”
Put together, these recently granted Exemptions are plainly a foundation upon which the FAA intends to build policy integrating UAS BVLOS operations into the national airspace. As this plays out, NAAA will continue to impress upon the FAA the importance of maintaining a safe airspace for agricultural aviators.