In the last decade drone technology has progressed beyond what many believed possible. To keep up with the growing need for drone regulations and development, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was enacted, authorizing the FAA to establish sanctioned UAS test sites. The goal of these testing sites was to push drone capabilities to the limits to ensure their safe integration in shared airspace. By 2016, the FAA had designated 7 locations throughout the United States to participate in the UAS Test Site Program. These sites have made it possible for the United States to become a worldwide leader in safe drone practices. One such location is the Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University (VTech), VA, managed by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP).
As outlined on the FAA’s UAS Test Site Program overview, “MAAP’s expertise in UAS research, operations, risk management, and testing – joined with the talents of world-class faculty and students at a top-50 research university – allows them to tackle the most daunting challenges facing UAS integration.” MAAP runs the BEYOND team, one of the FAA’s main goals in drone safety. The BEYOND team is responsible for developing means of using drones BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight), above people, and at nighttime. This is widely considered one of the final obstacles to unlocking the full potential of drones.
In January of 2021, the FAA released a new MOC (Means Of Compliance) for the safe use of drones over people. “The rule provided an understanding of what’s required to operate over people,” said Tombo Jones, the director of MAAP. “But to utilize the rule, you need a solid process to demonstrate that you meet those requirements. That’s what this means of compliance provides, and it will make it possible to use drones efficiently and safely for a wider range of operations.” Working with the VTech Center for Injury Biomechanics, MAAP conducted experiments to determine the severity of injuries that could be posed by a small drone to a person. The formula set forth by the FAA uses the drone’s speed and mass to calculate the kinetic energy of the UAS to a person in the event of a collision.
MAAP set out on a series of rigorous tests using this formula in conjunction with various drones. The process consisted of evaluating how and why a drone may crash along with the results of such a crash. Using test dummies and evidence-backed research, MAAP was able to present to the FAA an acceptable MOC for drone use over people. For now, it means that drones meeting the criteria set forth by the MOC can be freely flown over people rather than petitioning the FAA on an individual use case basis. “It makes it dramatically more efficient to scale toward more ambitious operations,” Said Tombo Jones. “It also reduces the business risk for drone manufacturers. Having a clear standard provides some assurance that there’s a well-defined pathway to being able to operate.” Eventually, this MOC, and other programs being conducted through the UAS Test Sites, will open avenues for similar MOCs to be developed for drone use at night and BVLOS.