Informational Maps Released to Accelerate UAS Authorizations

UAS droneAs part of its Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (“LAANC”) initiative, the FAA has been working to provide more detailed maps of the airspace surrounding the nation’s airports in order to more clearly communicate to operators of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”) what airspace can be utilized for UAS operations.

Late last week, the FAA released the first batch of airspace maps (the “Maps”). By and large, the Maps identify airspace surrounding 200 smaller and more rural airports. Users can zoom in to view these airports and see individual 1 square mile grids, with the maximum above ground level (AGL) altitudes where drones may operate. As an example, the grids near Colorado Plains Regional Airport in Akron Colorado show maximum AGL altitudes ranging from 400 feet down to 0 feet.  The FAA intends to publish additional maps as part of the agency’s 56-day chart production cycle. Future distributions will address many of the nation’s largest airports.

The Maps are not intended for navigation but rather are for informational purposes to streamline the authorization process for UAS operations near airports. Until now, FAA had drawn indiscriminate circles with a 5 mile radius around airports without providing much guidance as to which operations could ultimately be authorized. The Maps incorporate airport operational data and display a granular view of permitted altitudes for UAS operations. While aircraft takeoff and approach paths remain highly restricted, UAS operators now have significant additional airspace in which to operate. The Maps will also allow FAA to eventually issue automated approvals based on the data contained in the Maps and operator applications rather than rely on airport tower operators. This is a significant step in enabling significant numbers of UAS operations.

Drone Versus Human Collisions – What Are the Consequences?

While the speed of FAA approvals and decisions may not meet the expectations of new entrants to the aviation community, no one can ignore the improvements in the UAS regulatory world that have occurred in the last year – the FAA has issued over 770,000 authorizations for commercial UAS operations.

With this many devices potentially added to the National Airspace System (NAS), it is not surprising that people, including attorneys, are asking “What might happen if a drone hits a person on the ground? What’s the risk of serious injury?” The FAA has people working on those questions, and the results of this work will be included in future regulations governing UAS operations over people – an activity that is currently prohibited.

Beginning in 2015, the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE) has been studying (1) the severity of injuries arising from UAS-Human collisions and (2) the hazards associated with various UAS components, such as unguarded rotors. ASSURE is comprised of various research institutions, industry and government partners and universities.

ASSURE’s research identified the dominant injury types (blunt force, lacerations and penetration injuries), but noted that drones are usually constructed out of materials that bend or “give” when they hit an object and therefore distribute the force of impact to a greater extent than a piece of wood or metal falling from a similar height. However, the same cannot be said for the drones’ payload or power sources – these objects are dense and will fall like a rock.  ASSURE also noted that additional safety precautions may be necessary for lithium ion batteries that power UAS devices, a safety consideration already recognized by the airline industry.

From a liability standpoint, if the hazards associated with UAS-human collisions are recognized, will that knowledge impose a greater compliance or liability risk on employers, property owners or UAS operators when drones are flown with co-workers or customers nearby? Time will tell.

On the regulatory front, the FAA will use ASSURE’s study to support the “flights over people” rulemaking effort, but that rule is now being reevaluated based on inputs from other agencies, including security issues. Currently there is no timetable for the release of this proposed rule.

ASSURE’s next research assignment begins this summer and will focus on a topic that has been a popular topic in the aviation community – the risks associated with UAS-aircraft collisions.

Contact Erik Dullea or David Agee for more information regarding Husch Blackwell’s UAS team.