Saturday, February 28, 2015

FAA's NPRM and TATTS

One goal of TATTS is to develop employment skills amongst our team members.  To date we've emphasized team work/social skills, flight skills, and post-processing of the aerial data we collect into movies, photomosaics and even orthophotos.  Now that the FAA has officially released their Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for commercial use of UAS, we have begun to review it from a perspective of TATTS.

This blog entry teases out some of the items within the NPRM and our thoughts on how it impacts us and our team members.  We offer these so that people involved with TATTS understand our perspective as well as as food for thought for others involved in the UAS community as they review the NPRM.

UAS Operator Certificate
Over the past several years there has been a good deal of conversation about the likelihood of the FAA requiring a private pilot's license to operate a UAS commercially.  That perspective was bolstered by the requirement for a private pilot's license within the several dozen 333 exemptions that have been granted to date.  Because of that, we were quite pleasantly surprised when the NPRM proposed that the UAS operator would simply need to pass an aeronautical knowledge test to obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating.  A professional UAS operator certification is a great opportunity for people on the autism spectrum as having one would make them marketable.

Passing an Aeronautical Knowledge Exam
We have concerns on the administration of an aeronautical knowledge test for UAS operator certification given the challenges that are sometimes present with people on the autism spectrum.  For example, people on the autism spectrum sometimes struggle with slower processing time and that may impact their performance on a timed test.  In addition, a heavy requirement on keyboarding skills may impact a person's ability to convey their thoughts and ideas.  Also, environmental factors such as background noise and the buzz of florescent lighting within a testing center may be difficult on a person on the autism spectrum.  Finally, testing centers often limit what an applicant can bring into the test area.  This may limit a person on the autism spectrum from wearing something such as headphones to block out background sound. We will make suggestions on this issue to the FAA in our NPRM comments.

No Flight School Required
In a similar manner to the pilot's license/operator certificate issue, we were reasonably confident that there would need to be a flight school or ground school requirement of some sort (be it for a pilot's license or some type of the UAS certificate).  That was a big concern as most of the TATTS team members require modifications to school curriculum given the impact of autism on how they learn.  We were glad to see that the NPRM suggests that there is no need for a flight school.  That being said, we are firm believers in understanding all aspects of safely operating a UAS and as such we are continuing to evolve what we teach TATTS team members to prepare them for the aeronautical knowledge exam should they choose to obtain one.

Corn Maze Flight From Last Fall

Minimum Age of 17 Years To Obtain a UAS Operator Certificate
TATTS members are school aged kids and young adults.  We've been concerned about what the FAA would require as a minimum age for people to obtain a UAS operator's certificate.  Throughout our 2 years in existence, we have been regularly impressed with the flight skills of many of our team members - many of which are well below the age of 17.  Also, we know that the minimum age necessary to apply for an airman certificate to operate a glider or a balloon is 16 years old.  Based on the skills we've observed in some TATTS team members, as well as existing precedent around gliders and balloons, we believe that dropping the age to 16 is acceptable. 

Of course, the presence of good flight skills amongst our team members is not always present.  In those cases, however, there are other roles in the UAS industry for them including visual observer, equipment mechanic, or image analyst. 

No Airworthiness Certificate Required
We appreciate the FAA's perspective that airworthiness certification shouldn't be required, predominantly because their safety concerns would be mitigated by the other provisions in the proposed rule such as maintaining the UAS in a safe condition via inspection prior to each flight.  We believe inspection and equipment maintenance are key skills of TATTS members and are an area where people on the autism spectrum would excel given their propensity for rigor and attention to detail.  We also would be concerned if a requirement for an airworthiness certification would only be achievable by large companies that build UAS hardware.  The DIY/maker space aspect to the UAS market is where great achievements are occurring.  We want and need the ability to build and fly our own units as that's where a great deal of education occurs as well as market advancements.

Leave Hobbyists Alone
All of our flying to date is under the guise of recreational flying pursuant to the FAA's 1981 advisory circular (AC) 91-57.  We are pleased to see that the NPRM doesn't impose new rules upon hobbyists. That being said, we do teach marketable skills and we want to expand our focus to offer "for fee" services to people and organizations in our community (who wouldn't want to hire these kids?!) but our focus is recreational flying. 

Institute a Micro UAS Designation (under 4.4 pounds)
The NPRM proposes a microUAS category that would impose different regulations for the commercial use of aircraft under 4.4 pounds (2 kg).  This is excellent news for TATTS as we tend to fly very small units that would meet those weight requirements.  As proposed, the microUAS designation would allow operations in Class G airspace, over people not involved in the operation, and would only require self-certification of aeronautical knowledge as opposed to taking a written test.  Eliminating the need for TATTS members to take an aeronautical knowledge exam is good news.  It does, however, limit where flying can occur (no ability to fly within 5 miles of an airport and only in class G airspace).

We are in the process of reviewing UAS America Fund LLC's petition for regulating microUAS.  Incidentally, the FAA is considering this petition as commentary to the NPRM so we are reviewing this to provide additional feedback.

Flying over People Not Involved In the Operation
As noted in the item above, the microUAS designation allows for flying over anyone - whether they're involved in the operation or not - only in class G airspace, and >5 miles from airports.  Allowing us to fly any microUAS over anyone is great news for TATTS as the majority of the flying we do tends to have someone around who is not involved with the operation such as pedestrians on sidewalks, people in their yards, and hikers/bike riders.  Also, we tend to only fly UAS that would fit the microUAS weight designation.

On the other hand, the proposed regular UAS designation (<55 pounds) allows for flying over those not involved with the operation only as long as they're in a covered structure.   We understand the concern of flying a large UAS over large gatherings of people such as protests, sporting events and music concerts.  However, our concern is that many of the applications TATTS is interested in will have people in the area that are not involved with the operation and will also occur in airspace beyond Class G, and/or requires autonomous flight (for photogrammetry and mapping).  Examples include:
  1. Construction sites in urban or suburban areas
  2. Inspections of infrastructure such as bridges, buildings or roads
  3. Mapping of transportation or environmental features
These locations have cars, trains and/or boats passing through, pedestrians moving about or other human activity.  We'd like the FAA to inject the ability to fly microUAS over anyone into the <55 pound UAS designation.  This would allow a certified operator to fly microUAS for commercial purposes over people not involved in an operation and do it autonomously, in class A, B, C or D airspace, within 5 miles of an airport, and up to 500 feet.  We need the flexibilty to fly microUAS over anyone yet we're willing to apply all the other <55 pound issues such as certification.

Lots more to think about in the NPRM and our work at TATTS.  We hope this helps you think about some of the issues.  Please share with others should you think it's warranted and provide us comments. Happy flying!

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