APPA, others urge FAA to allow for operational flexibility in drone proposed rule

Any Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rule related to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) should provide reasonable operational flexibility that allows utilities to use UAS “in ways that recognize the unique needs and obligations of the sector,” the American Public Power Association, the Edison Electric Institute and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association said in comments filed at the FAA.

The comments were filed in response to a proposed rule issued by the FAA in late December. The rule would establish requirements for the remote identification of UAS operated in the airspace of the U.S. Remote identification, or Remote ID, is the ability of an unmanned aircraft in flight to provide certain identification and location information that people on the ground and other airspace users can receive.

In the notice of proposed rulemaking, the FAA said that Remote ID is an important building block in the unmanned traffic management ecosystem and that the technology would allow the FAA, law enforcement, and federal security agencies to identify drones flying in their jurisdictions.

This rule would build upon the FAA’s 2015 requirement for the registration of recreational drones and its 2019 decision to expand use of the Low Altitude Authorization and Capability partnership, which supports UAS integration into the airspace.

The proposed rule would create a remote ID UAS service supplier who would contract with the FAA to provide real-time information upon request. The proposal gives owners and operators three years to comply with this requirement and manufacturers would be allowed two years to include the technology in their UAS.

According to the FAA, the proposed rule would lay the groundwork for usage Beyond Visual-Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) at low altitudes and create an air traffic control management system for drones. 

Utilities share FAA’s desire to further integrate UAS operations into National Airspace System

In their comments, APPA, EEI and NRECA said that electric utilities share the FAA’s desire to further integrate UAS operations into the National Airspace System. 

“To accomplish this, any final rule should provide reasonable operational flexibility that allows utilities to use UAS in ways that recognize the unique needs and obligations of the sector,” the associations said. 

The comments note the nature of certain UAS operations require flexibility to realize maximum benefits. “UAS must be able to inspect diverse structures, from tall wind turbines, to miles long transmission lines across varied and potentially remote terrain, to substations that may be in more urban environments.  In response to weather and other outage events, UAS are needed at all times during the day to respond to these emergency situations.  As a result, electric utility UAS operations are likely to occur in proximity to people, roadways and buildings and may occur at night.” 

A remote ID requirement is a step towards developing a traffic management system for UAS that can then lay a foundation for more complex operations, such as those like BVLOS at low altitudes, APPA, NRECA and EEI said.

“BVLOS operations are the single most important operational flexibility that the FAA could provide to electric companies that would maximize the technology’s ability to increase reliability for customers, while decreasing risks and costs,” the three associations told the FAA.

If the proposed rule is adopted, BVLOS would require operating standard Remote ID UAS because these are the only aircraft that will have the capacity for operations beyond the short range that would be possible for limited remote ID or no-remote ID UAS operations, APPA and the other groups noted. 

“Ultimately, the FAA should develop a traffic management system for UAS that can identify UAS in-flight to create improved situational awareness for other aircraft. Therefore, the proposed rule is a good step forward toward increasing the safety and expanding the operational capabilities of UAS that may lead to allowing utilities to conduct BVLOS UAS operations.”  

APPA, EEI and NRECA said that the FAA should establish remote ID regulations because such requirements should help law enforcement identify and distinguish authorized UAS from those that may pose a security threat.

Threat assessment requires real-time identification of UAS in the airspace, they noted. “For example, a remote ID requirement should allow the FAA to monitor and address concerns around the operation of drones over areas like airports, stadiums and energy infrastructure. In addition, remote ID requirements may aid in the management of increasing air traffic generally, especially as more companies are increasingly using drones for commercial purposes.”

Registration system

In addition, the groups said that the FAA should establish a registration system for remote ID that gathers all necessary data to support unique identification of UAS. “This requirement is necessary because the current registration requirements do not capture specific data for all aircraft.”

APPA, EEI and NRECA said that the FAA should tie remote ID requirements to the registration requirements so that the remote ID data that is broadcasted to or transmitted from a UAS is able to be correlated to the registration data of the remote ID UAS. “Towards this goal, the FAA should require all owners of UAS to register each unmanned aircraft and that all registrations of remote ID UAS include the serial number assigned by the producer of the UAS.”  The utilities did note that this application and registration system should not be overtly burdensome financially or administratively.  This to ensure that they do not adversely impact small-sized utilities, who may have a need for drones over their large service territory.

The groups also noted that UAS technology gives electric utilities the ability to conduct inspections without endangering personnel. Additionally, the technology has the potential to provide utilities with better information than visual inspection on a faster timeline and at a lower cost.

The text of the proposed rule is available here.