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FAA in the Weeds on UAS Waiver Approvals But Annual UAS Inspections Coming

FAA in the Weeds on UAS Waiver Approvals But Annual UAS Inspections Coming

Anyone who has applied for a UAS waiver will not be surprised by the findings of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the FAA.

According to the internal investigation, the FAA “has disapproved 73 percent of operational waiver requests (e.g., over people and beyond line of sight), and a significant backlog of waiver requests to operate in airspace with manned aircraft exists.”

This is why for public safety pilots I suggest they become familiar with the waivers and authorization process for emergency UAS operations. Emergency waivers are typically approved in about five minutes.

I did find it interesting to learn the FAA plans to inspect UAS annually for safety. This may be much like the type of annual inspection I have to deal with on the airplane. The OIG document says, ” While FAA has developed guidance for planning annual inspections, few UAS operators have received inspections to verify their compliance with regulations and the terms of their waivers.”

The report says, “As of May 2018, the Agency has approved about 10 percent of the over 18,900 total waiver requests received by FAA’s Flight Standards and ATO offices. Complex waivers—such as requests to operate beyond visual line of sight—are taking longer for Flight Standards to review due to insufficient safety information provided by applicants, challenges in intra-agency coordination, and lack of guidance to FAA staff and applicants.”

Just take a look at which divisions have to deal with waiver requests.

I can attest to the lack of guidance to applicants. Many have contacted me after being rejected and the reasons seem to all be different. It is clearly a confusing process for applicants and a frustrating process for FAA staff as well.

Included in the OIG report is a very interesting table of rules subject to waiver. It contains more sections than previously thought.

Data shows that 85 percent of approved waivers have been for night flight operations.

A bright spot of the report was that the FAA does recognize what I like to call the “accidental aviator.” These are people entering the regulatory world of the FAA without previous aviation experience. “With UAS, FAA is now responsible for regulating and overseeing a population of operators that do not necessarily understand FAA’s safety culture,” states the report.

Clear guidance and enforcement action when warranted are particularly important because the commercial UAS industry is driven by many nontraditional aviators—new UAS pilots without prior experience operating traditional manned aircraft.

The OIG has recommended eight steps for the FAA to consider to remedy the UAS waiver mess.

To improve the effectiveness of the UAS waiver approval and oversight processes, we recommend that the Federal Aviation Administrator:

  1. Conduct a workforce assessment of the staff assigned to review airspace waiver and authorization requests to determine if Air Traffic Organization (ATO) staffing is adequate, and take appropriate action based on the results.

  2. Assess performance statistics for ATO’s non-automated airspace waiver request process to determine if establishing volume and timeliness goals would enhance the process and if so, develop and implement these goals.

  3. Use performance metrics for Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) to evaluate the system’s effect on application processing volume and timeliness and take appropriate action based on the results.

  4. Develop and implement internal controls to improve consistency in the use of standard template responses when corresponding with applicants regarding requests for information.

  5. Update National Flight Standards Work Program Guidelines to require field offices perform inspections on a sample of commercial UAS operators in their area for a 2-year period, which will increase available inspection data for creating a risk profile of UAS.

  6. Using available inspection and risk data, develop a baseline risk assessment profile of small commercial UAS operators, including those operators with waivers and airspace authorizations, to inform inspector surveillance planning decisions, as well as procedures to periodically update this risk assessment profile using future inspection data.

  7. Issue guidance to field offices regarding where and how to obtain Agency information on waiver and/or authorization-holding UAS operators, to help inform their inspection planning.

  8. Provide clarifying guidance to UAS operators on FAA’s website or by other means regarding the small UAS rule provision relating to operations “over people.”

What is Over People?

The OIG did note that just on the issue of flying over people, substantial confusion exists about what that actually means. And I’ve seen this confusion myself. It appears now that the FAA is provising no exception for flight over participating members of departments even though that is the belief that has crept in.

The OIG saus, “For example, the rule specifically prohibits operations over people, unless they are under a safe cover or are “directly participating” in the operation. FAA specified in the rule that directly participating people refers only to those directly involved in the operation of the UAS, such as the pilot and visual observers. However, accompanying guidance to operators does not specifically define what flying “directly over” a person encompasses, or what constitutes a “directly participating” (or non-participating) person, and what is excluded.

As a result, in both operator site visits and in our survey of waiver holders, we found varying levels of understanding and different interpretations of what “over people” and “directly participating” mean. For example, in our survey, when asked how they would define a non-participating person, 21 percent of respondents replied anyone not employed by the company while 19 percent said anyone who has not signed a liability waiver—neither of which is correct, according to FAA. In addition, operators provided diverse interpretations of which “operations over people” are prohibited by the rule. Operator responses varied, including:
• no “operations directly above a human being”
• no “flying over crowds or groups of people”
• no flying directly over any persons but “one foot laterally away from a person is sufficient”
• no flying over anyone “unaware of” or “involved in” the operation, and
• no flying “in a cylinder immediately above.”

Feel Free to Contact Me With Questions and Feedback

About Steve Rhode

Steve is an experienced and certificated UAS pilot and aircraft instrument rated pilot. He is also the Chief Pilot with the Wake Forest Fire Department and North Carolina Public Safety Drone Academy.
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