Innovation has been at the forefront of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with multiple industries adapting to provide essential goods and services. Following the widespread adoption of social distancing measures earlier this year, the UAS industry has demonstrated the potential of expanded drone operations through the delivery of critical supplies.  In light of COVID-19, the U.S. federal government has expressed interest in helping the UAS industry bring new drone applications to market through expedited regulatory approvals under the current framework and accelerating the implementation of a broader regulatory framework for expanded drone operations.

Drone deliveries of critical supplies in response to COVID-19 have been made possible through the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program (“IPP”), under which the FAA has granted waivers from the operating limitations prescribed by 14 CFR Part 107.  Currently, expanded drone operations such as flights at night, beyond visual line of sight, and over people, are restricted under Part 107 rules without an individualized waiver from the FAA (14 C.F.R. §107.200), and Part 135 certification.

The UAS IPP was established in October 2017 to bring state, local, and tribal governments together with UAS operators and manufacturers to test and evaluate the integration of civil and public drone operations into the national airspace system.  By improving communications among these entities and addressing safety, security, and privacy risks at the local and federal levels, the UAS IPP allows for accelerated approvals of expanded drone operations that currently require special authorizations by the FAA.  For example, in connection with the UAS IPP, the FAA has adapted and streamlined the Part 135 certification process for drone operations by granting exemptions for rules that don’t apply to drones on an accelerated basis.  By fostering a dialogue on the balance between local and national interests related to drone integration, the UAS IPP has also led to expedited Part 107 waivers for drone operations beyond visual line of sight, which are required for most drone deliveries.

In August 2019, the FAA granted its first waivers under the UAS IPP for commercial drone flights beyond visual line of sight and limited drone delivery, including a waiver granted to Flytrex to provide on-demand food delivery via commercial drones to residents in Holly Springs, North Carolina.  Following the onset of COVID-19, Flytrex began delivering critical supplies via drone delivery in the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota as part of the UAS IPP program and in partnership with EASE Drones, the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation, and the City of Grand Forks.

Another company, Zipline, has been operating in Africa, transporting medical supplies between distribution centers and medical facilities.  Zipline is currently in the process of obtaining the necessary approvals from the FAA under the UAS IPP to begin U.S. drone delivery operations in North Carolina in late 2020, but hopes to begin sooner in light of COVID-19.

While the FAA recently acknowledged it has received inquiries about expanded drone operations to respond to COVID-19 and the possibility of expedited approvals, the FAA indicated that all applications will still be addressed through the existing Part 135 certification process.  Based on recent applications, the Part 135 process can take approximately six months to obtain the exemptions and certificate necessary to conduct on-demand drone deliveries.  The FAA has also indicated, however, that expedited approvals for expanded drone operations in response to COVID-19 may be forthcoming, but that coordination with local government, public health officials, and/or the community to be served would be a prerequisite.  Given the existing coordination efforts under the UAS IPP, the program is likely to be at the center of expedited regulatory approvals for these expanded operations.

In the long term, the FAA hopes to further streamline the airworthiness certification process for UAS and released its type certification policy on February 3, 2020.  The public comment period for the policy closed on March 4, 2020, shortly before the widespread adoption of social distancing measures in response to COVID-19.  Establishing a UAS type certification regime will shift the current regulatory compliance burden on prospective drone delivery operators to drone manufacturers, who will be responsible for completing the certification process once the FAA policy is final.

COVID-19 and social distancing measures have highlighted the need for innovative transportation solutions.  Through the UAS Integration Pilot Program, the industry has begun to demonstrate the valuable public health, safety and economic benefits of UAS.  With recent regulatory developments, there is hope that the U.S. will follow the example of other countries in adopting a regulatory regime capable of more fully integrating UAS solutions.