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Drone Flights Over People – The FAA is too Resrictive

The FAA is working to standardize drone flights over people, which is great news for commercial operators.

Image of Drone Flights Over People

Drone Flights Over People

From a Skyward blog by Matt Fanelli. 4/25/19

In my last article, I gave a quick summary of the notice of proposed rulemaking. The window for comment closed last week; Skyward collaborated with both AUVSI and the Small UAV Coalition on their responses. In our view, the proposed rule is well-intended but we do have some concerns, especially regarding the kinetic thresholds.

In general, the commercial drone industry agrees on several points:

The proposed rules for flights over people is too conservative.

The FAA is using a risk profile that doesn’t accurately reflect the risks posed by drones.
The FAA should provide clarity and adopt a new framework as soon as possible.

Weight Categories for Drone Flights Over People

The draft NPRM proposes a three-category framework for UAS permitted to operate over people. Flying over moving vehicles would not be allowed for any of the three categories.

Category 1 would allow drones weighing less than .55 pounds including payload to fly over people. Pilots would fly under Part 107 rules.

Category 2 would allow flights of drones that weigh more than .55 pounds including payload as long as they can’t transfer “11 foot-pounds of kinetic energy upon impact.”

Category 2 drones would not be allowed to have exposed rotating parts that could cut a person’s skin.

Category 3 drones could weigh more than .55 pounds, with maximum kinetic energy upon impact of 25 foot-pounds. Drones in this class would not be allowed to fly over open-air assemblies of people. And would only be able to operate over people if either of the following criteria is met:

(1) The drone flight is within or over a closed- or restricted-access site, and every person within the site is told that a drone may fly over.

(2) The drone doesn’t hover over any person not directly involved in the drone flight or located under a covered structure or inside a stopped vehicle that could provide cover from a falling drone.

Problem 1: These thresholds were developed for space shrapnel, not drones

The FAA used kinetic thresholds based on standards developed for commercial space debris: 11 foot-pounds (a baseball tossed underhand) and 25 foot-pounds (about like a child throwing a baseball). But a satellite falling to earth has a very different risk profile than a drone falling from 400 feet. Because of the way drones are manufactured, we know that it’s unlikely that one would “drop out of the sky.” But for the sake of argument, even if a drone operating over a crowd of people were to fall, it wouldn’t transfer all of its kinetic energy onto a person. The terminal velocity of a mostly-plastic drone is much, much slower than shrapnel falling from a satellite.

AUVSI points to existing research, including the Micro UAS ARC Report, and “experts in government, industry, and academia” that at their lowest weights, drones pose so little risk to people that we don’t need additional regulation to allow such UAS to operate over people. In addition, AUVSI recommends raising the weight threshold for Category 1 drones to reflect the research.

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