Actually, the drones are here — by the thousands. With more than 670,000 registered, the FAA expects there will be nearly 7 million small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) sharing U.S. airspace, with an estimated 250,000 piloted aircraft by 2020.
With the use of drones reaching critical mass, the need for peremptory governing of their operations are imperative. In June 2016, the FAA added Part 107 to title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) along with Advisory Circular (AC) 107.2. What is scant in these documents is a comprehensive directive about small UAS quality of product and maintenance guidance. Who is responsible for continuing airworthiness and maintenance of them, and by what standards?
A basic UAS, based on CFR Title 14 Part 107.3 and AC107.2, is “an aircraft operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft.” A small UAS is one “weighing between .55 pounds and 55 pounds, including its associated elements that are required for the safe and efficient operation of the small unmanned aircraft in the national airspace system.”
For a drone that weighs more than 55 pounds, aircraft certification and registration, and pilot certification and maintenance, are covered under order 8130-34C. For those under .55 pounds used by hobbyists, there are two ways for them to operate in accordance with FAA regulations.
One option is to fly in accordance with the Special Rule for Model Aircraft (Public Law 112-95 Section 336). The second is to fly under the FAA’s Small UAS Rule 14 CFR Part 107.
Part 107 pilot requirements and responsibilities are found in Sub-Parts 107.12/107.65 with AC-107-2 Chapter 6 dispensing details on the process. And registration instructions in Part 107.13 (which are rather thin in specifics) leading to reference Part 91.203 (a)2, with AC-107.2 Chapter 5.4-5.4.1 adding more detailed verbiage and guidance, (but even this is a bit meek and mild):
“FAA requests drone owners to register each drone that is purchased weighing over .55lbs. If your drone is not registered properly, you may be subject to the legal consequences defined in the U.S. government drone regulation terms.”
So each small UAS should be registered, and pilots qualified and certified. What the FAA is hoping is that by having the small UAS activity regulated, the FAA will have control over this tech.
Use of drones is accelerating at a supersonic pace within both aviation and non-aviation communities — gaining rapid acceptance with airborne law enforcement for surveillance, movie and TV production, aerial fire mapping, power-line patrol, search and rescue, among others, for example.
As discussed, most of Part 107 and AC107-2 address operation and pilot qualification and certification. Maintenance is defined in 14CFR Part 107:
“No person may operate a civil small UAS unless it is in a condition for safe operation. Prior to each flight, the remote pilot in command must check the small UAS to determine whether it is in a condition for safe operation.
“No person may continue flight of the small unmanned aircraft when he or she knows or has reason to know that the small UAS is no longer in a condition for safe operation.”
That’s it. Sub-part 107.15 is the only mention about airworthiness. AC107-2 Chapter 7 does a decent job of recommending a maintenance program, based on operator experience. But that is still merely suggestions and recommendations. Further, I can’t identify in either Part 107 or AC107.2 where there has been FAA oversight in the certification of the manufacturers. It appears total responsibility for an operationally safe drone lands on the certified pilot.
As a certified A&P technician, I am apprehensive about the UAS manufacturers and the absence of FAA oversight of their quality control systems. I am astonished that a recently certified drone pilot, perhaps new to aviation and ignorant to the flight-induced stresses on the small UAS, is the final authority on the airworthiness of any system. I am concerned that in the haste to satisfy a hot new trend, assumptions and concessions have overshadowed foresight. And I fear these assumptions and concessions will result in an NTSB report chronicling a catastrophic event. RWI