Last June the FAA convened an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (“ARC”) where it invited 87 various industry participants to deliver a set of recommendations to enable BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) operations, and I was honored to represent Aloft (along with the largest network of drone pilots) in shaping the ARC recommendations. Nine months later (three months longer than initially scoped; more on process below) we now have a final set of recommendations that the entire aviation industry should be excited about. Within the 569 pages, there are plenty of sections that will cause legacy aviation constituents to reach for a warm glass of milk. There are also countless areas that require future rulemaking that the ARC simply didn’t address or couldn’t reach consensus. Suffice to say, the ARC report was a compromise, but one that puts drones on a very clear path for new flight rules – largely accomplished by defining and reassessing how we think about risk.

ARC Background

The scope of the ARC was fairly constrained, in a good way. The dream of air taxis was not part of the discussions, and the area of flight was limited to uncontrolled airspace – which, importantly, includes auto-approval LAANC ceilings in controlled airspace. The use-cases that we focused on were inspection, agriculture, and small package delivery.

As we got started, the ARC members and working groups focused on the industry needs, societal benefits, and the limitations of current regulations. The second phase dug more into the details to result in performance based recommendations that reflected the majority of ARC members views.

Along the way, there was great dialogue despite key contentious issues, such as defining an acceptable level of risk or how to rethink right of way rules. While you will see a number of “non-concur” ballots from legacy aviation groups, I don’t fault them for they have a responsibility to their members. As such, however, the recommendations that the ARC produced reflect that compromise. To that end, the ARC was extended by over 3-months to accommodate more dialog, plenary meetings, and transparency across the process.

Where the ARC Succeeded

Changing how we think about and define the risk of drone flight was one of the biggest wins coming out of the ARC. Ground risk is fully mitigated so long as the drone flight is not hovering over crowds. Air risk is fully mitigated if the drone is shielded, such as within 100ft of a structure. The ARC also recommends a quantitative acceptable level of risk that is aligned with general aviation fatality rates. Together these are powerful as the true risk (exposure by probability) of drone flight is addressed, while at the same time we put drones with the rest of aviation recognizing that this is not a zero risk activity.

The ARC’s right of way recommendations was another critical step forward. Whereas today drones assume 100% of the collision avoidance responsibility, the ARC has put forward some common sense and equitable recommendations for all aircraft from legacy aircraft to drones to share the airspace. By accurately assessing the risk of collision where drone flights occur, combined with the fact that very few (think thousands for the entire country) legacy aircraft fly, the ARC recommends that in some instances the UA will have the right of way.

Where the ARC Missed

While the ARC recommendations were successful in creating a performance-based structure by which BVLOS drone flights can operate by rule (rather than by waiver), the ARC failed to tackle the harder questions about drone airspace integration into the broader NAS (“National Airspace System”). Similar to LAANC or Remote ID, the ARC’s BVLOS recommendations are about compliance versus integration. With these recommendations, drone flight is still outside of ATC; there is no system for drones to communicate with other drones; and there is no system for drones to communicate with legacy aircraft.

UTM (UAS/Universal Traffic Management) and related topics like Network Remote ID did frequently come up in ARC deliberations, as is evidenced by the fact that “UTM” shows up on 89 pages of the report. While UTM is recognized as critical for the industry to operate at scale, the ARC was unable to develop consensus recommendations, only going so far as to suggest the FAA explore these technologies. Given the critical role of UTM as described in the ARC report, by NASA, and even the FAA Administrator, this void will be filled by industry based on market demand, which may be a good thing at the end of the day.

In the report, there are plenty of recommendations that talk about coordination with airport managers or notification of flight. These would have been perfect opportunities to find ways to remove people from the loop and replace manual, analog recommendations with digital, scalable recommendations that can stand the test of time.

What’s Next for BVLOS

Now that the ARC report is published and officially sent to the FAA, it’s now up to the FAA to publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) where it takes the ARC report recommendations and puts them into a proposed set of regulations that will be open for public comment. That comment period should provide a lot of fireworks as there will be plenty of folks, especially from legacy aviation camps (as evidenced by their ARC ballots), that will chime in on how they think the final rule should be written.

From there the industry is looking at likely a few years before a final rule is published and put into place. With that said, there are plenty of areas in the ARC report that should give the FAA momentum to make some interim changes and open up BVLOS flight that pose zero air and ground risk but still require a waiver. Even just speeding up the waiver approval process while the final rule is adjudicated would be impactful.

Beyond this ARC report and new BVLOS regulations, what this industry – and frankly all of transportation – needs is someone who can look holistically at the impact of drones. The FAA is concerned only with the airspace impact of drones, and lacks the jurisdiction to look at the broader transportation impact. More drones mean fewer cars on the road – meaning less pollution, less traffic, and fewer auto-related deaths. More drones also mean more equitable access to goods, medicine, and related care for all societies.

Is the DOT willing to take on this broader initiative in looking at how remotely piloted vehicles can transform our societies and economies?

Is Congress able to do this? What about the current or future Administrations?

In the balance are a set of benefits that everyone could gain from if there is a willingness to boldly seize the opportunities that are within our grasp right now.

Listen to a podcast discussion with Jon Hegranes, Aloft CEO on why BVLOS operations are essential for the evolution of innovation for drone technology, Hegranes’ experience as a member of the BVLOS ARC, where the BVLOS ARC Report succeeded and fell short, and what’s next for BVLOS below.