FAA Eyes Beyond Visual Line of Sight Approvals for 4 More Firms

Phoenix Air Unmanned, uAvionix, Zipline, and UPS Flight Forward have applied for BVLOS waivers.

FAA waivers

Zipline, whose current drone model is pictured above, is one of four firms to request a BVLOS waiver from the FAA. [Courtesy: Zipline]

More than a year after the FAA published the final, nearly 400-page report from its beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) advisory rulemaking committee (ARC), the agency has opened the door to expanded unmanned operations for four major aviation players.

On Tuesday, the FAA announced it is seeking public comment on four requests for BVLOS waivers that would allow remote pilots to fly their aircraft where they can’t see them. The requests come from aerial data acquisition firm Phoenix Air Unmanned, unmanned aviation services provider uAvionix, and drone delivery firms Zipline and UPS Flight Forward.

Starting Thursday, the public will have 20 days to comment on the proposed waivers, allowing stakeholders to express any concerns about safety, privacy, or other topics. The FAA will then review all comments and expects to issue decisions granting or denying the requests this summer.

“The FAA will review and consider all public comments received,” an agency spokesperson told FLYING. “Any final approvals will include safety mitigations, specific conditions and limitations, and data-reporting requirements that will allow the FAA to analyze these operations.”

Currently, the FAA relies on BVLOS waivers to permit expanded unmanned operations in lieu of a robust regulatory framework. Data gathered from those operations is being used by the agency to develop a new set of regulations that would enable operations without an approval process. However, acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen recently admitted there is not yet a date in sight for a final BVLOS rule.

The FAA grants several different exceptions to Part 107, the rule that outlines regulations for small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and certificated remote pilots. These waivers exempt operators from different aspects of the rule. For example, an exception to section 107.31 permits operations beyond the remote pilot in command’s line of sight (but within view of a visual observer).

Other waivers offer even greater flexibility. An exemption from section 107.33(b), for instance, enables operations even beyond the visual observer’s line of sight. Still more waivers cover other aspects of operations, such as speed and altitude (section 107.51), and flying over people (section 107.39) and moving vehicles (section 107.145).

Phoenix Air Unmanned, for example, is seeking an exemption for BVLOS inspections of powerline infrastructure owned by any Department of Energy recognized electric utility.

"Our petition for exemption process has included a safety risk management review alongside the FAA, demonstration of the aircraft, and on-site evaluation of BVLOS inspection operations within the proposed concept of operations," the company told FLYING. "The exemption request is in the interest of the public and we welcome public comment as a next step of the authorization process."

For now, we don’t know exactly which BVLOS permissions the other three new applicants are requesting—that will be made clear Thursday. But they could involve expanding operations beyond the line of sight of the remote pilot, the visual observer, or both. They may even call for one pilot or observer to be responsible for supervising multiple aircraft, another path to expanded operations.

While commenters will likely have some concerns around the safety of BVLOS operations, the FAA has an incentive to approve these waivers in some fashion.

It’s possible commenters’ worries are enough to sway the agency into outright denying the waivers. But the more likely outcome is regulators grant them, even if it means including special conditions or limitations for safety. Even a limited approval would give the FAA more operations to study as it builds BVLOS regulations.

"uAvionix is encouraged by the actions of the FAA and looks forward to the public review period and the intended outcome of extending BVLOS operations for all," a uAvionix spokesperson told FLYING.

Zipline did not immediately respond to FLYING’s request for comment. UPS Flight Forward declined to comment at this time.

Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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