Long established as an important process for ensuring safety and high standards in manned aviation, type certification has made the leap to the drone industry. Following the announcement of the application process in 2020 and the issuing of airworthiness criteria to a number of companies by the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Airobotics was the first to achieve this historic milestone for an autonomous security and data capture UAS (unmanned aerial systems) platform.
What is Type Certification?
The type certification process has been around for roughly a century and involves ensuring that specific models of aircraft are airworthy by thoroughly analyzing their designs and making sure that they meet exacting standards of safety that are deemed necessary for operating in the National Airspace System (NAS). Once this process has been completed, every subsequent unit of that aircraft model created by the manufacturer is automatically certified.
FAA Rules for Drones: FAA Type Certification
Unsurprisingly, the FAA rules for drones and regulations for manned aircraft do not have a one-to-one overlap. On the one hand, a significant part of the rigorous detail of type certification for manned aircraft revolves around the transporting of people. Without these requirements, the process for UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) has the potential to be more streamlined, at least until the further development of unmanned eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) passenger services. On the other hand, manned aircraft have a pilot onboard who is able to observe the surroundings and react to potential hazards and incidents in real time. The absence of this brings up specific safety considerations for UAS.
The FAA’s initial regulations covering the commercial use of small UAS are known as Part 107. These rules are relatively restrictive, outlawing operations such as flying BVLOS (beyond the visual line of flight), performing operations over people, and fully automated flights. As the drone industry advanced and created new safety technologies, the FAA then introduced a waiver process that allowed suitable applicants to legally bypass some of these restrictions. The intention behind the waiver process was to prevent the industry from stagnating while the FAA worked on expanding their regulations.
While this waiver system was a good start, the certification and regulation process need to evolve further to keep pace with the needs of the industry. Completing the waiver process is a long and complex process, and even once waivers are granted, they only allow the holder to operate with a specific aircraft at a specific location and within a specific timeframe. For operators that want to operate fleets of drones regularly over large geographical areas, this is clearly not sustainable. Type certification is the next step in allowing drone operations to be scaled up more efficiently.
Implications for BVLOS Drone Operations
BVLOS flights are one of the keys to unlocking the full potential of the drone industry. Allowing UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to operate beyond the visual range of the pilot will allow longer flights and coverage of greater areas, and cutting humans out of the loop entirely via full autonomy will drive operating costs down even further.
Adoption of BVLOS operations enables a wide range of use cases and makes them commercially viable. These applications include package delivery, precision agriculture, long-range utility drone inspection, and much more. Type certification will play an essential part of the process by which commercial BVLOS drone platforms can be developed safely and reliably and integrated into the NAS in an efficient and scalable way.
As type certification automatically applies to all units of the relevant UAS model, significant time and effort will be saved on paperwork. However, type certification is a design-based approval, and its achievement does not automatically mean legal permission to perform BVLOS missions. This requires a separate Special Airworthiness Certification, and achievement of this next stage will be a lot easier if type certification has already been granted, as the FAA will already be satisfied that the proposed BVLOS drone platform has met a subset of stringent safety standards.
Expert Insights into BVLOS Type Certification
For BVLOS drones, one of the key features that the FAA, as well as other aviation regulation bodies around the world, will want to see when considering type certification applications is a robust communication solution. This is crucial no matter whether your drone platform will operate in urban areas, where failure may result in injury and property damage, or rural and remote areas, where connection may be sparse or network connection may change often.
This system must be able to provide command and control as well as data transfer with a high level of reliability and redundancy, with uptime that is close to 100%. Security is also an essential consideration, as many drone applications will involve transferring of large amounts of sensitive data over public communications networks.
Navigating the Certification Process
Following the submission of a type certification, the FAA will issue airworthiness criteria to applications that are deemed to be suitable. These criteria represent safety standards that the applicant must demonstrate that their UAS are reliable, controllable, and safe, and provide the FAA basic assurance that the aircraft will operate as intended. The review is currently tailored on a case-by-case basis towards each particular drone platform, its level of complexity of its operations, and the level of risk involved.
Factors that drone manufacturers may have to demonstrate compliance with may include, but are not limited to:
- Specific functionality of the ground control station (GCS)
- Protection against lightning and other harsh weather conditions
- Prevention of critical part failure
- Contingency planning in the event of C2 link loss
Elsight: Your Trusted Partner in Drone Technology
Elsight’s Halo platform provides all the features that are essential for a safe and certifiable BVLOS drone connectivity solution. Elsight was a major piece of the puzzle that helped Airobotics achieve its historic first type certification. Powered by its proprietary communication technology, its Halo platform offers advanced secure bonding that aggregates up to four cellular links from multiple providers, together with other IP links including RF and satellite communications.
Halo simultaneously uses all of the provided channels as one bonded link, automatically balancing traffic among the bonded networks to the links that are most ideal for the drone’s particular requirements and per the link’s capacity. This powerful functionality provides the redundancy and hot failover essential for long-range drone operations. Halo can also choose networks based on preferred network, minimum bandwidth, or any other custom preference determined by the drone operator.
The Halo hardware is highly compact and lightweight, providing minimal impact on the SWaP (size, weight and power) budget of the aircraft, while also providing support for 5G network connectivity and Remote ID as required by the FAA. This lowers the energy footprint of BVLOS drone operations and allows resources to be diverted towards other essential criteria such as flight endurance and sensor operation.
Elsight’s deep experience in working with certifiable drone platforms can help drone manufacturers and operators navigate the regulatory hurdles and the ever-changing landscape of the BVLOS drone industry.
What is Type Certification for drones?
Type certification is a process by which a particular model of UAS is deemed to have met the specific standards of airworthiness through robust and safe design. It allows every subsequent unit of that model produced by the manufacturer to be also certified automatically.
What are the implications of Type Certification for BVLOS drone operations?
Type certification makes Special Airworthiness Certification quicker and easier, which then allows BVLOS drones to operate broadly without having to apply for permission for each flight.
Can you provide an overview of the certification process?
Companies seeking type certification for their drone platform much send an initial application to the FAA. If this application is found to be plausible, the FAA will then issue a set of airworthiness criteria, which the applicant will have to demonstrate compliance with. Once these requirements are met, type certification can then be issued.
Why should I trust Elsight for drone technology solutions?
Elsight has supported a wide range of leading drone manufacturers and operators, enabling BVLOS platforms to gain flight permission. The Halo connectivity platform is much more than just hardware, its powered by innovative software, and the professional services team at Elsight will work with you every step of the way to get your BVLOS platform in the air.
- https://www.faa.gov/uas/advanced_operations/certification – The FAA’s landing page for type certification and airworthiness
- https://www.unmannedsystemstechnology.com/2021/04/understanding-the-faas-new-drone-type-certification-process/ – more details on the initial implementation of the FAA type certification process
- https://www.elsight.com/resources/downloads/ – Optimal Connectivity for Commercial BVLOS Drone Operations – a guide outlining considerations to be made when designing a BVLOS drone platform