The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced its policy for the type certification of certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) as a special class of aircraft. The 14 CFR part 21 rule contains the FAA’s procedural requirements for airworthiness and type certification for small drones. The new policy is directed towards UAS operations currently not covered by the existing Part 107 rule, for example beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and flights over people.
In 2016, the FAA issued the Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems rule (82 FR 42064), known as Part 107. Part 107 sets forth rules for the operation of small UAS that do not require FAA airworthiness certification. Under part 107, operations may not occur over persons at night, generally above an altitude of 400 feet above ground level, or beyond visual line-of-sight, without a waiver issued by the FAA. UAS weighing 55 pounds or more and small UAS operating outside the limitations imposed by part 107 must receive airworthiness certification, a waiver, or an exemption as appropriate.
The FAA establishes airworthiness criteria and issues type certificates to ensure the safe operation of aircraft in accordance with 49 U.S.C. 44701(a) and 44704. Section 44704 requires the Administrator to find an aircraft, aircraft engine, propeller, or appliance is properly designed and manufactured, performs properly, and meets the regulations and minimum standards prescribed under section 44701(a) before issuing a type certificate for it.
When the FAA promulgated part 21 as part of its recodification to combine and streamline the Civil Air Regulations, it originally required applicants for a type certificate to show that the product met existing airworthiness standards (29 FR 14562, October 24, 1964). Existing airworthiness standards for aircraft and other products, issued as a separate part of the FAA’s regulations, are: Normal category airplanes under 14 CFR part 23, transport category airplanes under 14 CFR part 25, normal category rotorcraft under 14 CFR part 27, transport category rotorcraft under 14 CFR part 29, manned free balloons under 14 CFR part 31, aircraft engines under 14 CFR part 33, and propellers under 14 CFR part 35.
The FAA subsequently amended part 21 to add procedural requirements for the issuance of type certificates for special classes of aircraft (52 FR 8040, March 13, 1987). In the final rule (amendment 21-60), the FAA explained that it intended the special class category to include, in part, those aircraft that would be eligible for a standard airworthiness certificate but for which certification standards do not exist due to their unique, novel, or unusual design features. The FAA further stated that the “decision to type certificate an aircraft in either the special class aircraft category or under . . . the FAR is entirely dependent upon the aircraft’s unique, novel, and/or unusual design features.” (52 FR 8041).
Specifically, the final rule (amendment 21-60) revised § 21.17(b) to include the certification procedure for special classes of aircraft. For special classes of aircraft, for which airworthiness standards have not been issued, the applicable airworthiness requirements will be the portions of those existing standards contained in parts 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 33, and 35 found by the FAA to be appropriate for the aircraft and applicable to a specific type design, or such airworthiness criteria as the FAA may find provide an equivalent level of safety to those parts.
An “unmanned aircraft” is an aircraft operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft. See 49 U.S.C. 44801; 14 CFR 1.1. Unmanned aircraft include all classes of airplanes, rotorcraft, and powered-lift aircraft. Many UAS elements, while essential for safe operation, are part of the UAS system but are not permanent features of the unmanned aircraft. For example, instead of traditional landing gear with wheels and brakes, many UAS have a launch and recovery system. Additionally, because the pilot is not situated within the aircraft, unique configurations and applications of airframes, powerplants, fuels, and materials are possible and can result in flight characteristics different from those of conventional aircraft. These features specific to UAS are the very unique, novel, and/or unusual features the special class category was designed to accommodate.
Rule publication date: 18 September 2020
CFR: 14 CFR 21
Document: 85 FR 58251
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