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Delivery by drone has been growing in popularity over the past several years due to a variety of factors. Last-mile challenges such as driver shortages, higher fuel expenses, traffic congestion, and environmental concerns have contributed to a growing number of companies turning to the air to meet consumer demand.

In this context, drone delivery partners are a critical part of the equation, because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is very strict about who can do what when it comes to traversing the skies and dropping packages from above.

Many drone companies operate under the FAA’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Regulations (Part 107) and related waivers—which involve a complicated approval process—but just a handful have been approved for the more comprehensive Part 135 certifications.

For those frustrated by the cumbersome framework, the good news is that recently introduced bipartisan legislation aims “to streamline the approvals process for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights” so the “commercial transport of goods across the country” by drone can become more of an everyday thing.

The Snail’s Pace of Part 135 Approvals

As we noted in a post we published on this topic in August of last year, Part 135 air carrier certification is “the only path for small drones to carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight,” according to the FAA.

“As participants in these programs move to prove their concepts, they must use FAA’s existing Part 135 certification process, some of which FAA has adapted for drone operations by granting exemptions for rules that don’t apply to drones, such as the requirement to carry the flight manuals on board the aircraft,” the FAA says. “All part 135 applicants must go through the full five phases of the certification process.”

Describing the certificates that are available for the four types of Part 135 operations, the FAA webpage that was last updated on June 21, 2022 lists only four companies that had received at least one of them by then: Wing Aviation, UPS Flight Forward, Amazon, and Zipline.

“The FAA is currently working on additional part 135 air carrier certificate applications that have been submitted by IPP operators and one 135 application that was submitted by an FAA Partnership for Safety Plan (PSP) participant,” the webpage notes.

Since the last approval issued to Zipline on June 17, 2022, there hadn’t been any additional part 135 approvals issued until recently.

Although not yet listed on the FAA’s website, Flytrex announced in late January that its partner Causey Aviation Unmanned had received Standard Part 135 Air Carrier Certification from the FAA, making it only the fifth drone operator in the U.S. to do so.

“Operating a drone delivery service under Part 135 provides several key benefits compared to Part 107, which is what Flytrex has been operating under up until now,” Flytrex CEO and cofounder Yariv Bash told FreightWaves. “Part 135 allows for greater operational flexibility, including the ability to fly over people and beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight (BVLOS) — a limitation that can’t be waived under Part 107.”

The Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act of 2023

The FAA’s cumbersome approval process for drone operators has caught the attention of legislators—particularly U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD).

In a joint statement issued on February 3, they announced the introduction of the Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act of 2023, described as “comprehensive legislation to streamline the approvals process for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights and clear the way for drones to be used for commercial transport of goods across the country – making sure that the U.S. remains competitive globally in a growing industry increasingly dominated by competitors like China.”

The announcement described the current state of the approval process: “Currently, each aircraft and each BVLOS operation that takes flight requires unmanned aerial system (UAS) operators to seek waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but the FAA has not laid out any consistent set of criteria for the granting of waivers, making the process for approving drone flights slow and unpredictable. The bipartisan Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act will require the FAA to issue a new rule allowing BVLOS operations under certain circumstances.”

“Drones have the ability to transform so much of the way we do business. Beyond package delivery, drones can change the way we grow crops, manage disasters, maintain our infrastructure, and administer medicine,” said Sen. Warner. “If we want the drones of tomorrow to be manufactured in the U.S. and not in China, we have to start working today to integrate them into our airspace. Revamping the process for approving commercial drone flight will catapult the United States into the 21st century, allowing us to finally start competing at the global level as technological advancements make drone usage ever more common.”

“Drones have the potential to transform the economy, with innovative opportunities for transportation and agriculture that would benefit rural states like South Dakota,” said Sen. Thune. “I’m proud to support this legislation that provides a clear framework for the approval of complex drone operations, furthering the integration of these aircraft into the National Airspace System.”

The bill requires the FAA to establish a “risk methodology” to determine the level of regulatory scrutiny required:

  • Operators of small UAS under 55lbs simply have to declare that they conducted a risk assessment and meet the standard, subject to audit compliance by the FAA.

  • Operators of UAS between 55lbs and 1320lbs must submit materials based on the risk assessment to the FAA to seek a “Special Airworthiness Certificate.” UAS in this category may be limited to operating no more than 400 feet above ground level.

  • Finally, operators of UAS over 1320lbs must undergo the full “type certification” process—the standard approval process for crewed aircraft.

The statement also notes that the new legislation would create the position of “Associate Administrator of UAS Integration” as well as a UAS Certification Unit that would “have the sole authority to issue all rulemakings, certifications, and waivers. This new organizational structure would create a central rulemaking body for UAS, allowing for a more uniform process.”

“Commercial drone operations provide valuable services to the American public and workforce – but significant regulatory hurdles are hampering these benefits from reaching their fullest potential and jeopardize U.S. global leadership in aviation. The regulatory challenges are not driven by safety, they are hampered by bureaucracy. We accordingly have urged Congress to prioritize drone integration, and we are grateful for the support of Senators Warner and Thune in this cause. AUVSI is proud to endorse this legislation, and we urge Congress to include it as part of their critical work this year to pass a multi-year FAA Reauthorization,” Michael Robbins, Chief Advocacy Officer of the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said.

“The Coalition is grateful for the leadership of Senators Thune and Warner, and this bill comes at a pivotal time for the drone industry. Since 2012, Congress has worked to progress the law and regulation around commercial drone use, but now, in 2023, this progress has slowed as regulations and approvals continue to be delayed. With reauthorization of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs required by September 30, this year is a critical time for the drone industry,” said The Small UAV Coalition.

“The Commercial Drone Alliance applauds the introduction of the Increasing Competitiveness for American Drones Act of 2023, and we commend and thank Senator Warner and Senator Thune for their leadership on these important issues. While the U.S. has lagged behind other countries in developing and deploying uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS), this legislation provides the U.S. with the opportunity to reestablish its prominence as a global leader in advanced aviation and compete more effectively in the global economy,” said The Commercial Drone Alliance.

Full text of the legislation is available here.

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