Over the last year, Amazon has been slowly releasing pieces of information about their plans for drone delivery, and the rest of the commercial drone industry can learn a lot from their experience. The release of their plans to operate using other portions of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) show that industry is figuring out how to compliantly perform the increasingly complex and valuable operations they want to do while following the existing rulebook, rather than waiting for a final rule from the Department of Transportation and the FAA specifically addressing and allowing drone delivery.

The reason companies could make this work is that even though there are specific rules for uncrewed aircraft, like the Part 107 rules for commercial operation of small uncrewed aircraft (sUAS), the FAA still categorizes all drones over 0.55 pounds (250 grams) as aircraft. For example, current recreational operators of drones are not operating under Part 107. They are operating under a different section of the FARs applicable to hobbyist and model aircraft.

As long as all drones over 0.55 pounds continue to be considered aircraft, many other sections of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) traditionally applicable to operations using manned aircraft are also applicable to drones. This does not mean that companies are free to ignore Part 107. Instead, it means that Amazon, UPS, and others would simply be operating in compliance with other, more demanding sections of the FARs, like Part 135, and the FAA would grant them the authority to operate under that section of the regulations. The petitions filed by Amazon and UPS seek exemptions from some inapplicable parts of those more robust rules. (For example, even though the Part 135 rules require seatbelts and documentation on board, the FAA isn’t making operators put miniature seatbelts on their drones.)

If companies tried to do things like drone delivery under Part 107, they may not be able to operate as robust and professional a program as they are currently working towards due to limitations of what you can do under Part 107 without waivers. Waivers for operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and operations over people are very bespoke, time-consuming, and not as repeatable as needed for the diversity and quantity of missions anticipated for such operations.

Moving Beyond Part 107

Instead of utilizing Part 107, Amazon and others like UPS are trying to get approval to operate under Part 135 of the FARs. Part 135 encompasses rules governing commuter and on-demand operations, known as air carrier operations. Basically, Amazon and UPS are trying to get approval to do drone delivery using the same rules that govern how small airlines and charter operations operate. As you can imagine, these rules are very comprehensive, including rules for seatbelts, crew rest breaks, maintenance of aircraft, training, documentation, and significantly more.

Just as current drone operators can choose to operate under the Part 107 rules for commercial operations or under the rules for recreational operations, drone operators could choose, with FAA special authorization, to operate under Part 135 as long as they fulfill all of the operational and certification requirements. It seems that if an operation can comply with appropriate federal regulations, the FAA is willing to entertain the idea of a company operating under different parts of the FARs beyond Part 107. For example, UPS showcased delivery of blood supplies with its partner, Matternet, in North Carolina this summer, under Part 107 as part of the Integration Pilot Program (IPP). Operating under Part 135 would allow UPS to increase the robustness of their operation, including more flights with more aircraft over a more diverse environment with increasing complexity. The FAA appears to recognize the limits of Part 107 and are showing a pragmatic approach to exemptions while still maintaining very high safety standards.

Amazon’s plan seems to balance efficiency and safety. Even though the initial operations will be run by licensed pilots with a valid and recent medical exam, it seems likely that ultimately, a smaller team of operators and system managers will operate the fleet and can control and monitor more than one at a time. This type of crawl, walk, run approach is one the FAA favors.

What is a 44807 Exemption?

Section 44807, titled “Special Authority for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems” reflects a section of the FAA Reauthorization Act signed in October 2018. That section directed the FAA to update existing regulations within 1 year to permit the carriage of property by small commercial UAS operators and describes a process by which the Secretary of Transportation can grant an exemption to certain existing regulations. In Amazon’s case, it is seeking an exemption so that it can use and test its customized delivery drones before receiving an airworthiness certificate.

One reason that Amazon is taking this approach may be that the aircraft it has proposed using is over 55 pounds, the maximum allowed weight under Part 107. The FAA seeks airworthiness certificates to make sure that the aircraft can operate safely in the national airspace, with appropriate reliability.

Why is This Important?

The news that Amazon and others are seeking to operate under Part 135 and Part 91 means that drone delivery may be closer to becoming a reality, at least for initial operations. If successful, these petitions for exemption by Amazon and UPS will provide a roadmap for other companies seeking to offer similar services. Once the regulatory path is shown, others are likely to follow. It also gives hope that the FAA is willing to consider novel ways to approach the current regulations beyond Part 107 to allow advanced operations not allowed by Part 107 as long as regulatory compliance and safety can be sufficiently shown.

The fact that these companies are confident petitioning the FAA shows a level of maturity and capability that supports the idea that drone delivery, is ready to move from the proof-of-concept phase to something more regular and widespread.

Stay tuned for a deeper dive into Part 135 and other operations outside of Part 107.


Photo credit: Jordan Stead/Amazon