FAA Accelerates Commercial Drone Adoption with Rule Changes As American Robotics Sets a Milestone

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1Q 2021 | IN-6067

On December 28, 2020, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released guidelines outlining small drone flights over people and developed final rules for remote identification of manned aircraft. This allows regulators and drone service vendors to operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and further enables operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) over People (OOP) mainstream. Without the potential to complete these flights safely, the fledgling commercial drone industry will struggle to get off the ground.

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Regulatory Overhaul


On December 28, 2020, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released guidelines outlining small drone flights over people and developed final rules for remote identification of manned aircraft. This allows regulators and drone service vendors to operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and further enables operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) over People (OOP) mainstream. Without the potential to complete these flights safely, the fledgling commercial drone industry will struggle to get off the ground.

The new remote ID rule is particularly important as the FAA requires modifying drone hardware to enable the permanent broadcast of the ID and location of the drone and its control station. If the drone is intended to be operated in U.S. airspace, then every drone manufacturer needs to add a remote ID broadcast module within 18 months after the rule’s effective date of December 28, 2020.

According to the document, while remote ID capability alone will not enable routine expanded operations—including OOP or BVLOS—it is the next step toward getting there. Unmanned aircraft intended to be sold for operation in U.S. airspace are thus now subject to the production requirements of this rule. This means that all drone producers who want to sell into the world’s largest drone market will have to harmonize their remote ID norms with the FAA.

There are three ways to comply with the operational requirements for remote ID.

  • Basic: Operating a standard remote ID unmanned aircraft that broadcasts the ID, location, and performance information of the unmanned aircraft and control station.
  • Broadcast Module: Operating an unmanned aircraft with a remote ID broadcast module. The broadcast module, which broadcasts the ID, location, and takeoff information, may be a separate device that is attached to an unmanned aircraft or a feature built into the aircraft.
  • Waiver: Operating an unmanned aircraft without any remote ID equipment where the UAS is operating at specific FAA-recognized ID areas.

These changes are a major extension of the regulatory overhaul that began in 2016 when the FAA published its part 107 framework for drone operations. In that time, there have been intermediate improvements in the regulation, including an airworthiness criterion for sensor data and delivery of goods.

This has not been a journey without bumps. There have been major fractures among regulators, commercial operators, and drone hobbyists. Drones will need a SIM card to operate under the new guidelines for remote ID. Leading carriers such as AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile charge between US$10 and US$20 per month to add a new device such as a tablet or smartwatch to data plans, meaning there is the potential to monetize the drone space. If pilots are operating more than one UAS, like many small businesses and some hobbyists already do, these charges can add up. Major carriers also have gaps in the data coverage they provide. Many rural areas don’t get any signal, which might further limit where drones can be operated.

The regulation of drones has caused much concern among smaller providers and the hobbyist community whose members feel increasingly shut out of the decision-making process. Despite being integral to the development of drone operations and being a source of considerable expertise, hobbyists argue that the dominance of a select few companies in the decision-making process benefits large corporations over individual pilots. A recent backlash erupted when Airmap, an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) provider, suggested that users would have to pay for airspace usage and internet connectivity. Session ID and serial numbers could be used in tandem with local authorities to establish additional fees and taxes. The remote ID demands, and the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), create greater visibility for regulators and provide business with a rich data environment for drone operations. For providers like UTM, much of this data is shared with drone vendors but also with larger entities like Honeywell and Microsoft. How this data-centric business gets monetized will be a major sticking point between industry and the hobbyist community going forward, but there is no doubt which is determining the future of commercial drones in the US.

There are some other questions that demand inquiry from the latest update, such as the public access of a control station's latitude, longitude, and altitude from takeoff to landing by anyone—not just law enforcement. This is concerning because the general public will know exactly where a remote pilot is operating, creating issues around anonymity or potential sabotage.

Good Signs for American Robotics


American Robotics, a commercial drone manufacturer and solution provider, became the first vendor approved by the FAA to operate automated drones without human operators on-site. The company’s Scout System features acoustic detect-and-avoid sensors that enable its drones to maintain a safe distance from other aircraft at all times. Prior waivers and certifications awarded by the FAA required visual observers to surveil the flight path and to keep eyes on the operation at all times.

With this approval, American Robotics’s Scout System is now the first drone technology allowed to continuously operate without this human requirement. Each Scout drone lives within a weatherproof base station (like a nest) where it autonomously charges, transmits data, and deploys edge computing to analyze captured video footage. While a human remains in the loop, the lack of need for onsite management opens up the possibility to scale operations further.

American Robotics is part of a cluster of commercial drone manufacturers that have been achieving greater prominence as Western governments (and particularly the USA) have scrutinized the dominance of the Chinese drone giant DJI. Local police forces were still using DJI drones in the early stages of COVID-19 as U.S. agencies like the department of the interior were banning the use of these drones. DJI has historically dominated the U.S. and European markets, severely decreasing the revenue of the French manufacturer Parrot while seeing off rivals 3DR and GoPro’s Karma with ease. Though this often is attributed to common arguments about Chinese companies copying American innovation and lowering price, DJI developed a reputation for quality far exceeding that of competitors in the consumer space. This was primarily achieved by the shorter development cycles for each new product, and the centralized location of Shenzhen where design and manufacturing are connected.

But with the increased scrutiny of Chinese technology firms by U.S. regulators, more preference is being shown by government and local officials toward homegrown commercial vendors. Such companies include Impossible Aerospace and Skydio alongside American Robotics. These companies don’t have the sales footprint of DJI, and their systems are considerably more expensive. But their emphasis on quality and commercial value is already paying dividends. Looking forward, it may be that DJI’s dominance of commercial drone shipments was a temporary era and that we are transitioning to a much more regionalized and segmented market where barriers to DJI on foreign territory is high and opportunities are expanded for Western competitors. This is just part of a wider hardening of barriers for Chinese technology vendors in the US, as evidenced by the former administration’s Executive Order (EO) 13971 (Addressing the Threat Posed by Applications and Other Software Developed or Controlled by Chinese Companies). This EO effectively bans transactions between Americans and those who develop or control Chinese connected software applications. Coupled with the inclusion of DJI on America’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) backlist, Washington is nullifying Chinese completion from its drone market.

Where to Go from Here


American Robotics’s FAA approval is an important and significant step forward, but the company will not be out of the loop completely, with human oversight being ever present from remote control stations. This development should also be seen as a validation of identified drone-enabled use cases for agriculture and infrastructure and does not necessarily affect the likelihood of innovation in more ambitious case studies like delivery. In this space, at least, the U.S. market is facing significant challenges. The Chinese government has been rolling out its own regulations at a quick pace and, if anything, is moving at a faster speed in deploying ambitious pilot tests for UAS delivery. As of January 1, 2021, the new industry standard permits express delivery using drones with a maximum empty aircraft weight of 116 kilograms (250 pounds), a maximum takeoff weight of 150 kg (110 pounds), and an airspeed of no greater than 100 km/h (62 mph). This is being cosponsored by drone developer EHang and e-commerce giant JD.com. While U.S. vendors such as Walmart, UPS, and so on are developing and pilot testing their own solutions, the Chinese are currently rolling out drones at a faster rate in the rural mainland as well in hard-to-reach locations in Indonesia.

Meanwhile, the E.U.’s Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has closely observed the developments in the United States. All nations within the European Union have had individual (i.e., more or less permissive) regulatory frameworks at that time. The EASA took these learnings into consideration. This explains the huge time gap between the E.U. and U.S. publication dates of regulations; the European Union published their final drone operation Regulation (EU) 2019/947 in June 2019 while the United States had a similar document already available in 2016.

The United States leads the world in the number of drones registered, with a total of 1,792,037 drones registered (526,487 commercial drones versus 1,262,057 recreational drones) and 209,927 remote pilots certified as of January 2021. The enacted regulatory changes lay the groundwork for BVLOS, OOP, and the ability for automated operation for viable commercial use cases. The task for regulators and industry is now to extend remote ID standards across the industry and to build a comprehensive UTM system, which may take years. While this regulatory overhaul is taking place, there will be tension between hobbyists and industry, as well as increased scrutiny and obstruction of Chinese vendors in the US drone market.