FAA memo on UAS/drone Type Certification and approval – what does it mean for you?
Updated: Apr 8, 2022
Need help for regulatory lift off? Anzen Unmanned (Au) is the gold standard for waiver, exemption, and TC/PC approvals for drones and advanced air mobilty.
On July 13, 2021, the FAA released a memo clarifying the approval process for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), a.k.a. drones, entitled “FAA Approval of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Special Class UA Projects and their Associated Elements” (https://rgl.faa.gov/Regulatory_and_Guidance_Library/rgPolicy.nsf/0/6e844f8bbc0b529286258711005e3865/$FILE/AIR600-21-AIR-600-PM01.pdf)
This is great news for the drone industry! It’s a step forward for the FAA’s UAS/drone Type Certification process and provides some valuable insights for:
Unmanned Aircraft (UA)/drone OEMs
Ground and airborne/satellite communications system providers (basically, anything “not airborne or directly affixed to the aircraft”)
Certification and approvals for UAS and their operations has been a major undertaking, and congratulations are in order to the FAA for achieving this milestone. This memo takes a major step forward by clarifying the UAS Type Certification process for low-risk UA using durability and reliability (D&R) testing in their airworthiness criteria as well as the approval process for other system components outside the boundary of the Type Certification.
Type Certification for UAS has gained increasing visibility since the FAA released updates to Part 107 (14 CFR Part 107) at the beginning of 2021. These updates now allow UAS operations over people and moving vehicles under specified conditions if the drone meets one of four categories:
Categories 1-3 are a progression based on the kinetic energy of the drone in a collision – i.e., how much damage it will do if it hits a person – with the top end of Category 3 being quite restrictive on drone weight in most cases.
Category 4, however, extends operations over people and moving vehicles all the way to the maximum size drone allowed by Part 107 (55 lbs.) provided the drone has a Type Certificate and resulting Airworthiness Certificate.
Type Certification, and subsequent Production Certification and Airworthiness Certification, unlocks not only operations over people and moving vehicles for UAS, but also scalability to many other use cases such as Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) deliveries and inspection.
In this blog, I’ll provide an overview of the memo as well as what it means for:
Associated Element providers (i.e., systems “not airborne or directly affixed to the aircraft”)
What is this memo about and why is it important?
In this memo, the FAA is clarifying what’s “in scope” for the Type Certificate (TC) for certain low-risk UA, and equally important, the approval path for systems outside the TC boundary, referred to as Associated Elements (AE).
Type Certification for UAS, and other remotely piloted or automated aircraft such as air taxis, has unique aspects that challenge the 90+ year history of aircraft approvals. Specifically, these new aircraft without human pilots onboard rely on external systems (AE) for their safe operation. In current regulations for aircraft with pilots onboard, the equivalent functions are approved through a combination of the Type Certification process and pilot/operator approvals. For UAS and other remotely piloted or automated aircraft, there hasn’t been a clear regulatory path for their approval.
The memo signals a major step forward in solidifying the UAS Type Certificate and approval process, defining the TC boundary for low-risk UA using D&R as the unmanned aircraft (UA) itself, and identifying the FAA Operational Approval (i.e., waivers, exemptions, and/or operating certificates) as the means for approval of the AE. The figure below, taken from the memo, highlights the variety of external systems (AE) that may be part of the operational approval.
The memo also highlights the importance of waivers and exemptions, as well as operator certificates for certain types of operations (e.g., Part 135 for package delivery or Part 137 for agricultural operations). The following figure from the memo shows the relationship between the TC, waiver/exemption, and potentially an operator certificate in the ultimate approval to conduct operations.
What does this mean for UA/drone OEMs?
UA/drone OEMs are typically the applicant for the TC and work directly with the FAA to ensure all required safety information (e.g., documents, analyses, test data) is provided to support the Type Certification process. While the TC boundary does not include the AE,
“the TC applicant must provide sufficient specifications for any aspect of the AE that could affect airworthiness”
It is then expected that:
“ACOs [Aircraft Certification Offices] may approve the use of AE with certain specifications as an operating limitation and include them in the TCDS [Type Certificate Data Sheet] ...”
The FAA provides some valuable advice for UA/drone OEMs to consider in the TC process. Specifically, OEMs may structure their TC process so it provides artifacts that streamline their customer (i.e., operators) approval efforts. The memo indicates that operators:
“…may use data, test results, or other compliance evidence provided by the TC holder and demonstrated in conjunction with the TC to support the operational approval request.”
The memo also highlights OEM responsibility for continued operational safety through reporting, corrective action, safety management, and Instructions for Continued Airworthiness (ICA) to be used by operators.
What does this mean for operators?
The memo makes it clear that operational approvals in the form of waivers and exemptions (and operator certificates in some cases) are expected. It states,
“When seeking an operational approval, operators must address the AE specifications in the operating limitations of the flight manual and any other system specifications necessary for the safe[ty] of the operation.”
It is ultimately the responsibility of the operator to:
Ensure that AE solutions satisfying the TC specifications are in place (some of these may be provided by the OEM)
Identify and pursue the appropriate operational approvals
Provide the required evidence to support the operational approval (documents, data, test results, etc.)
Ensure compliance with the OEM’s Instructions for Continued Airworthiness (ICA)
Ensure compliance with applicable Airworthiness Directives (ADs) throughout operations
Ensure compliance with conditions and limitations of the waiver or exemption throughout operations
Provide required reporting, corrective action, and safety management throughout operations
Continuity of safe operations includes updating system components as needed, including UA updates as well as AE updates. The implications of change in these components on the operational approval may inspire tradeoff analyses between different solutions based on their cost of change attributes.
What does this mean for AE providers?
AE providers such as communications radio vendors, SATCOM solutions providers, and DAA solution providers will need to provide solutions that serve both the needs of the OEM’s TC process as well as the operator’s operational approval process. Information such as documentation, analysis data, and test results will be needed during the OEM’s TC process to:
Establish the AE specifications
Demonstrate that the AE and its specifications are sufficient for safe operation of the UAS
In addition, AE providers will need to provide information to operators to:
Demonstrate satisfaction of the specifications and operating limitations identified in the TC
AE providers will often provide solutions to multiple OEMs and operators, so packaging the interface specifications, functional specifications, and data packages for re-use among multiple TC efforts is desirable.
Sustainability should also be a consideration for AE providers. Once an OEM or operator completes an approval, they will need an efficient way to update to newer versions of the solution in the future and demonstrate that the newer versions satisfy specifications and operating limitations.
As the drone industry matures, scalable regulatory approval is becoming increasingly important. The Type Certification (and subsequent Production Certification and Airworthiness Certification) process is a core part of regulatory approval scalability, as evidenced by 90+ years of aircraft certification. UAS, and other remotely piloted or automated aircraft such as air taxis, have unique aspects that challenge the current certification and approval processes, and are driving changes.
The recent FAA memo is a major step forward in solidifying the scope of both UAS Type Certification and operational approvals. The memo clarifies the boundary of the TC for low-risk UA using the D&R process and provides guidance on how Associated Elements (AEs) such as radios and DAA systems are addressed within the TC process as well as within operational approvals.
This guidance has implications for OEMs, operators, and providers of systems outside the boundary of the TC. It points to a near future where drones with Type Certificates and Airworthiness Certificates are approved for operations through waivers and exemptions - augmented by operator certificates such as Part 135 or Part 137 certificates in some cases.
As the gold standard for waiver, exemption, and TC/PC approvals for drones and advanced air mobilty, Anzen Unmanned (Au) will help you establish your certification and approval roadmap, and then work with you through the process to ensure approval success.