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US drone integration pilot programme launches with aggressive 3-year timeline

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last week fulfilled President Donald Trump’s directive, issued in an October Presidential Memorandum, to launch a three-year Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, or drone) Integration Pilot Programme.

The programme is designed to safely test innovative small UAS operations in partnership with state, local and tribal jurisdictions, and generate data for future UAS policy and rulemaking.

US law firm Holland & Knight’s has previously spoken of the programme’s  aggressive timeline  (Presidential Memorandum Launches New Pilot Program to Test Drone Operations), with the first programme deadline set for November 28, for applicants to express an interest in participating.

During a high-profile media event at DOT headquarters in Washington, D.C., representatives of state, local and tribal governments, as well as industry stakeholders, gathered with Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios and government leaders from various states to kick off the programme.

Chao said the programme represented ‘the biggest technological challenge in aviation since the dawn of the jet age’. The speakers talked about existing local UAS operations, including the pivotal role played by drones in disaster relief following the recent devastating hurricanes, where the FAA granted more than 300 authorisations for UAS operations on an expedited basis. The speakers also focused on the need for a framework that allows governmental jurisdictions to participate in the safe integration of UAS into the national airspace.

In a briefing note, Holland & Knight said a pre-publication notice and the FAA’s website is providing specifics about eligibility, timeline and content for the application process. The notice is slated to be published in the Federal Register on November 8. Lead applicants will then have 20 days, or until November 28, to submit notices of intent to the FAA to seek to participate in the programme. Interested parties have 35 days, or until December 13, to be listed as potential partners.

During the stakeholder briefing,the FAA stressed that if a jurisdiction or private sector industry stakeholder has any interest in participating, it must meet these deadlines, even if it has not yet formulated a final plan for the project or if it does not yet have a partner.

The FAA will award a minimum of five pilot programme designations, although several senior DOT and FAA officials expressed their desire to award more than five designations. The FAA’s ability to do so is limited only by feasibility of the proposals submitted and available resources.

The programme allows FAA to approve applications on a rolling basis, which means that even if only five awards are made initially, FAA could approve a timely submitted application at any time within the three years. While it is not currently anticipated, there is some potential that based on the performance of the initial approved sites, FAA may re-open another application period during the three-year programme if resources permit.

The intent of the programme is to gather safety data on expanded drone operations, create a framework for state, local and tribal participation, and lay the basis for rulemaking that would allow nationwide expanded operations.

Application and Programme Details

Who?

  • Lead Applicants are state, local or tribal governmental entities. Industry stakeholders must team with state, local and tribal governments to be eligible. If chosen for the program, the Lead Applicant becomes the Lead Participant.
  • Interested Parties are any entities that wish to be listed on the FAA contracting website as potential partners for one or more Lead Applicants. Presumably, they are mostly private entities with technological, operational or other relevant expertise. However, Lead Applicants looking for one or more private sector partners may also submit a request to be listed. Interested parties have 35 days from publication of the Federal Register notice to request listing on the FAA website.
  • Role of the FAA: In addition to reviewing and approving applications, FAA’s role will primarily be to provide safety advice and gather data on the safety performance of the expanded operations.

What?

  • Type of Expanded Operations: During the stakeholder briefing, the FAA speakers emphasized that the agency is interested in innovative, diverse and aggressive proposals, even stating that they were “anxious to be surprised” by proposals. The speakers would not foreclose any potential type of proposal that would meet the goals of the program and urged attendees to “push the boundaries.” The FAA is expecting to see proposals that will employ advanced operations, such as beyond visual line-of-sight operations, operations over people and nighttime operations.
  • Examples of potential proposals provided by FAA:
  1. operations to support inspections of critical infrastructure and environmental concerns
  2. emergency and medical response support (e.g., firefighting, medical supply delivery, search and rescue)
  3. disaster relief (e.g. damage assessment, search and rescue, insurance appraisals, supply delivery)
  4. news reporting
  5. transportation and hazardous materials safety (e.g., contamination containment and assessment)
  6. human transportation (flying cars or electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft)
  7. crop, herd and wildlife management
  • The FAA noted that successful applicants will have:
  1. a well-defined framework for managing the drones in the operations proposed
  2. one or more strong industry partners, with focus on areas that push the current regulatory limitations, such as beyond visual line-of-sight operations, operations over people, and nighttime operations
  3. a method for providing data to support new or revised regulations
  4. a description of how the Lead Participant will anticipate and react to safety issues that might occur
  • Screening Criteria: Full evaluation criteria can be found in the FAA Screening Information Request (SIR), also located on the FAA pilot programme website.
  • Duration: The programme will run for three years from the date of the Presidential Memorandum, unless extended by the Secretary of Transportation.
  • Deadlines:
    • Nov. 28, 2017 – Lead Applicants must submit a Notice of Intent
    • Dec. 13, 2017 – Interested Parties must sign up to be listed
    • Dec. 13, 2017 – The first two volumes of the application must be completed
    • Jan. 4, 2018 – If the first two volumes are approved, the remaining four volumes of the application must be completed
  • Decisions: FAA will approve applications on a rolling basis thereafter, with the goal of selecting at least five proposals. Within 180 days of the Federal Register notice publication, participants will need to enter into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the FAA.

Why?

The goals of the programme are:

  • to provide immediate opportunities for new and expanded commercial UAS operations
  • to address the balance between local and national interests related to UAS integration
  • to provide actionable data and information to DOT and FAA that will be used for future UAS policymaking and rulemaking

How?

  • Memorandum of Agreement: Successful applicants will enter into an MOA with the FAA, which will govern the relationship between the agency and the participant as well as outline expectations specific to each participant’s proposal. A sample MOA is available on the FAA pilot program web page linked above.
  • Waivers and Airspace Authorizations: For advanced operations not permitted under the small UAS commercial regulations (Part 107), FAA will grant waivers and airspace authorizations using the same criteria currently applied to other waiver requestors. FAA indicated during the stakeholder briefing that waiver requests under the pilot programme will receive priority over other entity requests.

During the stakeholder briefing, FAA indicated that it would hold informational webinars in the near future and would also provide a Q&A document/web page that would be updated as questions are received by the FAA, so that all potential applicants have access to the same information. Interested entities can sign up for a webinar here. FAA staff is also available via telephone (844-FLY-MY-UA) for questions from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on business days.

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