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Focus on Regulation

Moving UAS Policy Boundaries Forward, Take 2: Flights Beyond Visual Line of Sight of the Operator

Yesterday we reported on the FAA’s policy shift relating to flights near people. The FAA last week made another quiet change that implicates beyond line of sight operations.

While the demand for UAS continues to grow, the FAA’s current requirement that the UAS only be operated within visual line-of-sight of the operator limits the full potential of UAS for many commercial uses. Some of the most promising commercial UAS applications—precision agriculture, powerline inspections, and railroad inspections, to name just a few—necessitate flights beyond visual line-of-sight (“BVLOS”) of the operator to be efficient. “Line-of-sight” flight requires that the pilot can visually see the UAS at all times during the operation, unless another person acting as a visual observer maintains constant visual contact with the UAS.

The concept of “daisy chaining”—that is, the use of multiple, successive visual observers to extend the flight distance of the UAS beyond the direct visual line-of-sight of the operator—could help alleviate the FAA’s BVLOS concerns. Until last week, however, daisy-chaining was generally frowned upon by the FAA. In the Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM), the FAA stated daisy chaining “would. . . pose an increased public risk if there is a loss of aircraft control.”

But in a move that could signal an important policy shift, last week the FAA issued Notice JO 7210.891 on Air Traffic Organization Policy, Unmanned Aircraft Operations in the National Airspace System (NAS), in which the FAA stated:

“(a) Daisy chaining of observers or observers on a moving platform may be authorized on a case by case basis.”

The ability to daisy chain or place observers on a moving platform would expand the area a small UAS could operate and provide temporary relief to operators who are currently stifled by the FAA’s visual line-of-sight requirement. This is a positive development.

But both recent UAS policy developments that we’ve described this week have been found buried deep within FAA technical documents. Are we witnessing coincidental fact-specific changes, or an overarching trend toward an increasingly thoughtful UAS policy from the FAA? Let’s hope it’s the latter.