On April 1, 2016, the FAA’s Micro Unmanned Aircraft Systems Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) issued its final report with recommendations for performance-based standards for the operation of micro UAS over persons neither involved in the operation of the UAS nor protected in a covered structure. The FAA formed the ARC to develop consensus regarding future rulemakings governing the operation of micro UAS over persons, after issuing its proposed rule on the operation and certification of small UAS in February 2015 and reviewing public comments on that proposed rule. The FAA charged the ARC with the following three objectives: develop a performance-based standard for the classification of micro UAS; identify a means of compliance for UAS manufacturers; and recommend operational requirements for micro UAS. The ARC developed four small UAS categories for the operation of UAS over persons, focusing on risk of personal injury. The categories are based on weight and potential for injury if the UAS were to fail. Generally, the ARC recommended that the greater the risk the small UAS poses, the greater the operational restrictions that should be placed on that small UAS. Below is a summary of the categories.
The ARC has recommended that Category 1 UASs be permitted to operate over persons if the total UAS weight, including payload, is 250 grams or less and presents a low-risk probability of injury on the ground. Manufacturers can show that the UAS is Category 1 by either labeling it or certifying to FAA that the UAS meets the weight threshold. Under the ARC’s proposed Category 2, a UAS that is over 250 grams, but presents a low-level risk of injury to persons on the ground, may operate over persons if the UAS does not exceed an impact energy threshold to be established by the FAA. Category 2 would require UAS operators to follow the UAS manual, and would place further restrictions on operation over persons by requiring minimum distances of 20 feet above, and 10 feet laterally, from persons. The recommended Category 3 for UASs would entail increased operation restrictions, in addition to the restrictions placed on Category 2, given that Category 3 UASs present a higher risk for more serious injury to persons on the ground. Category 3 UAS would not be permitted to operate over crowds of people, and would be limited to closed-access areas or areas where overflight of people is incidental to the operation. The final recommended category, Category 4, would allow for the overflight of dense populations or crowded gatherings, even though the potential exists for more serious injury than Category 2 operations. The same operation restrictions as Category 2 apply to Category 4. Under Categories 2, 3, and 4, the manufacturer of the UAS would be required to (i) certify to the FAA that the UAS meets the industry standards and (ii) label the UAS as such.
The ARC also made a recommendation related to operator certification, encouraging the FAA to consider requiring, for operators of Category 1 UAS, an online knowledge assessment and certification process as opposed to the in-person test that currently is being proposed by the FAA in the pending rulemaking on the operation and certification of small UAS. Some ARC members have argued that allowing easier access to certification will encourage more operators to be certified and will increase the safety of the NAS. This recommendation was not unanimous, though, as some ARC members believe that the proposed rulemaking, which proposes a requirement for in-person knowledge tests at FAA facilities and TSA background checks, is the only way to ensure the safe integration of small UAS into the NAS. The ARC consisted of representatives from over 25 stakeholders and met twice in March 2016.