The FAA recently issued a request for public comment on a policy for the type certification of certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems (“UAS” or “drones”).  The policy applies to both large UAS (55 pounds or more) and certain small UAS weighing less than 55 pounds (“sUAS”) operating outside the limitations imposed by 14 CFR Part 107.  sUAS operating under Part 107 (or with a waiver under Part 107) are not required to have airworthiness certification, but all other civil UAS must receive airworthiness certification from the FAA or an exemption from such requirements.  The FAA specifies UAS used for package delivery as those affected by the policy; type certification for these drones would streamline the process for manufacturing and airworthiness certification, accelerating commercial deployment within the U.S.  While the FAA contemplates a future rulemaking, the proposed policy is intended only to provide clarity to the public regarding existing legal requirements and FAA policies.  Comments on the policy are due on or before March 4, 2020.

The overall goal of the proposed policy is to move away from the current exemption framework, which is viewed as unsustainable in the long term, towards a standard airworthiness certification system for drones.  Under the new policy, the FAA is proposing that some UAS may be type certificated as a “special class” under 14 CFR § 21.17(b).  This process allows the FAA to tailor the certification basis for each product by applying existing airworthiness requirements for other aircraft types as appropriate (i.e. those contained in Parts 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 33, and 35).

As UAS applicants apply for type certification under the special class aircraft process, the FAA will announce and seek public comment on the specific airworthiness criteria for each applicant with the goal of gradually defining generally-applicable certification standards.  Once these standards are identified, the FAA intends to proceed with a rulemaking or publish the standards as guidance in an Advisory Circular.  This process is similar to what the FAA has done for previous special classes such as gliders, airships and other nonconventional aircraft.

The proposed policy would apply only to the procedures for the airworthiness certification of UAS, and is not intended to establish any policy impacting other FAA rules for unmanned aircraft, including operations, pilot certification, or maintenance.  As a result of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA integrated sUAS into the national airspace under the operating requirements of Part 107 regulations, which allow for liberal waivers for sUAS operations over persons, at night, above an altitude of 400 feet, or beyond visual line-of-sight.  The FAA’s type certification policy is being developed in parallel with its efforts to update the regulation of sUAS operations, particularly the remote identification rule proposed in December 2019.  

As high-level policy in its current form, the publication is expected to be met with approval from UAS stakeholders.  Establishing a UAS type certification regime will shift the current regulatory compliance burden on operators to UAS manufacturers, who will be responsible for completing the certification process once the FAA policy is final.  The eventual public comment process for individual applicants’ specific airworthiness criteria will provide further definition to the FAA’s type certification process for UAS.  For package delivery drones, in particular, this will allow for manufacturing of these drones at the scale required for widespread commercial deployment.  Ultimately, the FAA’s goal in establishing a drone type certification process is to accommodate all anticipated drone applications, including future UAS capable of carrying human beings.