What is FAA Type Certification and Why Does It Matter?

By Ronny Vatelmacher - VP product and Business Development | October 22nd, 2023

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Aviation is one of the most safety-critical of all industries, and for good reasons. When UAS (unmanned aerial systems) technology made the leap from military to civilian sectors and began appearing in public airspaces, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needed to introduce new legislation to ensure that collisions and other accidents were kept to a minimum.

Manned aviation has nearly a century of stringent and thorough regulations to fall back on. However, a large part of this body of safety legislation is based on one key factor that does not apply to drones – the ability of someone on board the aircraft to monitor the surroundings in real time and act quickly in the face of changing conditions. Thus, separate and specific rules were needed that covered the unique characteristics of unmanned aircraft.

Part 107 rules and waivers

Flying small UAS for commercial gain is largely covered by what is known as Part 107. These rules were set up to regulate operations for drones weighing less than 55 pounds. Because commercial drone technology was relatively new, the FAA decided to play a highly risk-averse game, and Part 107 rules forbade such things as flying BVLOS (beyond visual line of flight), performing operations over people, and fully automated flights.

As the industry expanded and matured, new technology appeared that would make these advanced operations viable. Drone manufacturers and service providers began to clamor for legal avenues that would enable BVLOS and other such operations, allowing the industry to grow further.

The FAA’s first response was to introduce a Part 107 waiver process. Waivers allowed commercial operators and other organizations to apply for an exception that would allow them to legally bypass some, but not all, of the restrictions outlined in Part 107. The process was designed to allow suitable applicants to start pushing the boundaries of the drone industry while the FAA worked on more concrete regulations that would clearly define how to legally carry out more advanced operations.

The FAA waiver system is a good start, but it only allows operations to be scaled up so far. Completing the waiver process is not only long and arduous, but also allows the waiver holder to only fly its BVLOS or other advanced mission with a specific aircraft at a specific location and within a specific timeframe. Should any of these parameters change, a new waiver must be applied for. Clearly, this is not a sustainable method for integrating advanced commercial UAS operations into the national airspace.

Type Certification for UAS

For around a hundred years, type certification has been used as a way to certify specific categories of manned aircraft as airworthy through a thorough analysis and approval of their design. Once an aircraft and its components have been type-certified, every identical instance of that aircraft model is also automatically compliant.

In 2020, the FAA announced that the agency would begin accepting applications specifically for UAS-type certification. UAS have been categorized as “special class” aircraft under 14 CFR Part 21, the FAA’s general procedures for aviation-related certification.

Later that year, the FAA issued airworthiness criteria to ten of the initial applicants, representing a first major milestone in the type certification process. These criteria represent safety standards that each company must demonstrate in order for their product to be considered suitable. Evidence of compliance includes substantial documentation as well as reports of thorough testing, and in-person demonstrations may also be required.

The airworthiness criteria are tailored specifically to each applicant, taking into account the proposed use case of the UAS and the level of risk posed by the platform’s operation. 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)
-Cybersecurity
-Protection against lightning and other harsh weather conditions
-Prevention of critical part failure
-Contingency planning in the event of C2 link loss

Further certification for streamlined drone operations

Once achieved by a manufacturer, type certification automatically applies to all units of the relevant UAS model, saving significant time and labor. However, it should be noted that type certification is a design-based approval, and its achievement does not automatically allow operators to perform BVLOS missions, flights over people, or other operations that are not permitted by Part 107.

In order to legally carry out such advanced operations, a separate Special Airworthiness Certification must be applied for. Achievement of type certification makes this next step a lot smoother and easier, as the FAA will be familiar with the drone platform and will already be satisfied that it meets a subset of safety criteria. Special Airworthiness Certification potentially provides scope for blanket permission to be granted for operations to be conducted any time and anywhere, thus doing away with the need to apply for case-by-case waivers.

Even if a manufacturer does not apply for further airworthiness criteria, type certification can still be hugely advantageous, as it will instill confidence in users and the general public regarding the safety and reliability of the aircraft.

Type certification with Elsight and Halo

Achieving type certification is a long and involved process, and one that puts safety front and center as a highly important consideration. For many applications, a key component of convincing the FAA of the suitability of a drone platform will be the inclusion of a robust communications solution that can handle dropouts and other issues without loss of functionality.

Elsight’s Halo cellular connectivity solution fulfilled this need for Airobotics, one of the initial ten companies to receive airworthiness criteria from the FAA. Thanks to Halo’s advanced cellular bonding and critical redundancy capabilities, Airobotics proved that its fully automated Optimus-1EX drone-in-a-box system would be able to operate safely over people and infrastructure without the risk of communications failure, and gained full type certification status.

To find out how Elsight could help you achieve type certification for your UAS platform, please get in touch!

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