Seeking to reinvent the delivery process for humanitarian, online retail, and food delivery industries, a Nevada company successfully executed—a few months before the release of Part 107—the first fully autonomous drone delivery in an urban setting. With a pilot and a few visual observers on standby, a black six-rotor drone flew itself along a pre-determined delivery route dropping off a five and a half pound package containing bottled water, emergency food, and a first aid kit at an uninhabited house. This was a milestone for drones and autonomous systems.
Part 107 allows drones to operate autonomously under certain conditions. The FAA decided to permit autonomous drone operations for two reasons. First, autonomous drone operations have many practical applications, including agricultural operations, aerial photography, and search and rescue.
Second, the FAA recognized that the ability for a drone to fly autonomously could add significant utility to a small drone operation and would further encourage innovation in the industry. At the same time, Part 107 does not permit completely autonomous drone operations. Part 107 is a step in the right direction, however, foreshadowing a not-to-distant future in which drones deliver goods directly to a person’s doorstep.
An autonomous operation is generally considered an operation in which a remote pilot-in-command (RPC) inputs a flight plan into a ground control station which sends it to the autopilot onboard the drone. The link between the ground control station and the drone is referred to as the command and control link. During automated flight, flight control inputs are made by components onboard the drone; not from the control station. Thus, the RPC could lose the command and control link to the drone and the drone would still continue to fly the programmed mission or return home to land.
From a legal perspective, Part 107’s allowance of autonomous drone operations is subject to a few conditions. Most importantly, under 14 C.F.R. § 107.19(e), the RPC must retain the ability to direct the drone—through manual manipulation of the flight controls or through commands using automation—to ensure compliance with the requirements of part 107. The ability of the RPC to take direct control of the drone is done through the command and control link—an essential requirement for operating safely.
In any event, these Part 107 requirements include, but are not limited to, the following: 1) the drone must remain within visual line of sight (14 C.F.R. § 107.31); 2) the drone must not pose an undue hazard in the event of loss of positive control (14 C.F.R. § 107.19(c)); 3) the drone must yield the right of way to all other users of the national airspace system (NAS) (14 C.F.R. § 107.37); and 4) the drone must avoid flying over a human being who is not directly participating in the drone operation or not under a covered structure (14 C.F.R. § 107.39).
Moreover, Part 107 allows remote pilots’ to conduct operations that deviate from certain Part 107 regulations—mentioned in 14 C.F.R. § 107.205—if they request a certificate of waiver from the FAA. But not all of those regulations can be waived. Simply put, the rules do not allow a waiver of 14 C.F.R. § 107.19(e) for drones to operate autonomously without a RPC having the ability to control the drone. So, at present, a completely autonomous drone operation is not allowed because the RPC must be in place to take control if necessary.
The FAA considered allowing fully autonomous drone operations. It was ultimately determined that the technology is not sufficiently developed to alleviate the safety concerns of the low-altitude flying public. Indeed, the FAA acknowledged the technological advancements in anti-collision sense and avoid systems and that one day these systems may be integrated into an autonomous drone to aid the pilot in avoiding hazards.
At this time, however, the FAA determined that there is insufficient data to establish that drone equipage is able to detect other nearby aircraft in a manner that is sufficient to provide a substitute for the human pilot’s ability to see and avoid those aircraft. Hence, a drone may be unable to, without human input, yield the right of way to another user of the NAS that may enter the area of operation.
Until the FAA provides additional regulations, companies seeking to conduct fully autonomous operations must pursue the traditional legal channels such as registering their aircraft under 14 C.F.R. Part 47, or pursuing a certificate of waiver or authorization, a certificate of aircraft worthiness, or a Section 333 Exemption.