Thank you to Greg DePrez from Aeon Unmanned for summarizing some of the recent drone law changes that might impact renewable energy companies.

In late December, the FAA issued a series of new rules covering Part 107 drone flight. These are exciting advancements for the drone industry and open up some of the limits that have been imposed in the first phase of the Part 107 rules. These rules became effective in April. Highlights:

Drone Flight At Night Allowed

Before the rule change, Remote Pilots In Command (RPIC) were allowed to fly from 30 minutes before local sunrise to 30 minutes after local sunset. To flight at night, they needed to apply for a “night waiver.” Under the new night rule, RPICs can operate anytime at night if they:

  • New Pilots: pass the revised Drone Knowledge Exam (that includes night flight questions) after April 6, 2021;
  • Current Pilots: complete a free “recurrent training” online that the FAA published April 6 which includes night flight training (this also serves as a new “recurrent” authorization which renews RPIC flight privileges for two years). 

AND the RPIC must also

  • Equip their drone with “operational” anti-collision lights  that can be seen for at least 3 statute miles (the same requirement as exists today to fly in “civil twilight” after sunset or before sunrise). The lights must have a “sufficient flash rate to avoid a collision.” Most drones are NOT equipped with acceptable anti-collision lights when purchased new; there are many companies offering after-market AC light kits that can be attached to a drone with Velcro. 

So current pilots will be able to earn their night flying privileges by taking the FAA online “recurrent” course at no charge. 

Drone Flight Over People Allowed

Restrictions on flights over people and moving traffic have been a severe limitation to drone use. Under the new rules, the FAA has established 4 categories of drones generally based on weight. Each category will have its own allowances and limitations for flight over people and moving traffic. 

The first category, Category 1, is defined as drones that 1) weigh less than .55 pounds at full takeoff weight and 2) contain no exposed rotating parts that would “lacerate human skin.” Drones that meet Category 1 specifications are now allowed to fly over people and “transit” (not hover) over groups of people and moving traffic.  These drones do note need a “demonstration of compliance” to the FAA.  Presently there are few drone models that meet the both the weight requirement AND the prop shielding required, but more legal models will be available soon.  The one characteristic they will all share: they will be small!

Category 2 and 3 drones are larger drones that are categorized by the kinetic energy they would have from dropping on someone or something. They must also have protection from exposed rotating parts and cannot have any safety defects.  They will require both a “means of compliance” and a “declaration of compliance” acceptable to the FAA. It will likely be many months before compliant drone models are available. 
The last category of drones, Category 4, defines a new class of drones that will get airworthiness certificates just as manned aircraft do.  They will need to be inspected and maintained just as manned aircraft are.  These will be new drone designs that will be very similar to manned aircraft – but flown remotely. 

Inspection, Testing, and Demonstration of Compliance

The FAA has tightened the rules that define how RPICs must work with law enforcement (at any level) and FAA inspections. Highlights:

  • A remote pilot of a drone and a PMC (“person manipulating controls” – the actual flyer) must have in their possession, when flying, a Remote Pilot Certificate and personal identification.  (They must also have a copy of the drone registration.)
  • Those documents must be presented, upon request, to any agent of the FAA, the TSA, or the NTSB.  They must also be presented, upon request, to any Federal, state, or local law enforcement officer.  (This requirement used to be vague.  It is now very specific.  Any peace officer can request to see an RPIC license and ID – and the RPIC must comply.)
  • An RPIC must also make available, upon request, any “document, record, or report” that is required to be kept under FAA regulations.
  • An FAA representative, upon request, must be allowed to test or inspect: a UAV; the RPIC and PMC and Visual Observer (if applicable) (not sure how they would “test” those folks!).  In practice, this means that the FAA can take a drone and inspect everything about it, including the contents of its memory card, including all flight history and photos.  And it appears that this can be used as evidence against the pilot, as has happened in at least one case.  So: be mindful:  your drone flight history can be inspected by the FAA. 

Remote Identification or “Remote ID.” As a first step in integrating drones into the National Airspace System (and eventually allowing drones to fly beyond the line of sight of pilots), the FAA, starting in October 2023, will require all drones that require registration to broadcast a signal while they are airborne that includes their ID, launch location, current location, altitude, speed, and flight condition (normal, low battery, etc.). This requirement will be met with a built-in Remote ID feature in new drones or an add-on module for older drones.  The FAA is already emphasizing (and testing!) the requirement that drones with a Remote ID system that fails a “self-test” on startup or that fails in flight cannot be flown. Prior to October 2023, you will need to prepare to meet this requirement, so you should follow drone manufacturer information on how to comply by the start date.

Featured image by Joel Henry on Unsplash