On February 15th, the FAA issued a Noticed of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the future outlook of small drones (under 55 pounds). Overall the proposed rules were far more lenient than many people in the industry had expected. A few key rules for the wind O&M industry include:
- Up to 500 feet Above Ground Level (AGL)
- Must remain in Visual Line of Sight to the operator
- Operator doesn’t need a manned pilot’s license. Instead they will only be required to pass a written test every 2 years and obtain an unmanned operator certificate
- FAA airworthiness certificate is not required
- A visual observer is not required, a single operator can deploy a drone alone
- Tethered UAS must operate under the same legal framework as any other UAS
- Able to fly in Class G airspace without notifying Air Traffic Control
At this time, the NPRM is only a set of proposed rules and will have to go through a 60 day public commenting period followed by the FAA addressing each of the public comments. It will likely be 1 – 2 years before these rules go into effect. Until that time, it is still illegal to use a drone for commercial purposes, which includes anything to do with wind O&M. The only exception to this is obtaining a Section 333 Exemption of Airworthiness and a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to operate in specific airspace.
The good news is if these end up being the rules put in the place, the wind O&M industry will easily be able to begin using drones for visual inspection of towers and blades. Previously, it was thought the FAA was going to require a manned pilot’s license to operate a commercial drone, which would require hiring a commercial pilot or putting inspectors through ground school and flight training. Letting up on this rule makes drones much more feasible in the near future.
The addition of another 100 feet of altitude (hobby rules state 400 feet max altitude) gives extra clearance while flying around a wind tower. The relaxation of the airworthiness certificate is also a big positive because it allows for any drone to be used commercially without spending time and money obtaining an exemption of airworthiness.
The Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) requirement is one of the biggest sticking points for some commercial industries, but for wind O&M it shouldn’t be a problem in the near future. An entire visual inspection can be conducted while maintaining VLOS around the wind turbine. It will prevent the drone from flying autonomously to conduct an inspection at this time, but a lot of research and testing using drones for inspection can be done under the proposed rules.
Prior to June 23 2014, tethering a drone could be interpreted as being a legal way to operate commercially according to FAA National Policy Statement 8900.207 which stated that UAS did "not include traditional balloons, rockets, tethered aircraft, and unpowered gliders". Unfortunately this policy expired on January 22, 2014 and tethered UAS were left in a gray area. On June 23, 2014 the FAA incorporated this rule into FAA Order 8900.1 but removed the "tethered aircraft" statement. Since this was published, it is very clear that tethered UAS must operate under the same legal framework as any other UAS.
While it is not legal to use drones for wind inspection at this time without a 333 Exemption and COA to fly, the proposed rules are very promising. If the rules make it into law, the wind O&M industry will have a new tool at their disposal. The industry should help support the rules being put into law by commenting positively with the FAA.