Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)

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FAA Notice Addresses Emerging Need for sUAS Maintenance Standards

June 5, 2015

Although a recent FAA policy notice likely signals the agency’s intentions to oversee maintenance and inspection for procedures for small, unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) used in commercial operations, for the moment it leaves more questions than answers for the rapidly evolving industry.

Effective May 16, the FAA notice outlines certain allowed deviations from manned aircraft maintenance regulations, which FAA inspectors may utilize to validate the airworthiness of civilian sUAS. However, it does not specify concrete alternate definitions for UAS airworthiness.

Currently, private commercial sUAS operations require a Section 333 exemption from the FAA to conduct flights in the National Airspace System (NAS). Among the requirements for approval is that operators submit a documented maintenance plan to the agency, typically incorporating the manufacturer’s maintenance guidelines (if available) as well as the operators’ own standards and procedures to ensure safety.

The FAA’s standards for sUAS airworthiness remain largely undefined, however, as the agency continues gathering operational and performance data from approved sUAS operators and the six approved UAS research and test sites. Those findings will contribute to any formal regulation of sUAS maintenance from the FAA

"A key requirement under a COA [certificate of authorization] is to address how your operation will handle and mitigate known risk factors,” said Brent Terwilliger, program chair for masters in science in unmanned systems at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and chairman of the NBAA Corporate Aviation Management Committee’s new UAS subcommittee. “That includes inspection and maintenance of the aircraft to ensure safety.”

NBAA remains committed to the potential for business aviation uses of sUAS, and is working with the industry and through the rulemaking process to ensure safe integration of sUAS in the NAS.

Nevertheless, NBAA’s position on all UAS in the system has long been consistent: any introduction plan for UAS must be thoughtful, deliberative and focused on safety. This means UAS should not share the same airspace with manned aircraft until they have equivalent certification and airworthiness standards as manned aircraft, including the ability to take timely directions from air traffic control, and to sense and avoid other aircraft and UAS.

Terwilliger noted that increasing focus on sUAS maintenance requirements should help alter perceptions of sUAS from throwaway, single-use platforms to reliable, mature, and cost-effective systems.

Read the FAA policy notice. (PDF)