NTSB expanding accident investigation criteria to many enterprise drones

NTSB releases drone video footage of Kobe Bryant's helicopter crash site

The rapid increase of drone use in a variety of enterprise activities has made upgrading their regulation both inevitable and anticipated. One such revamp is now in the works following a National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) decision to expand its criteria for examining accidents involving commercial drones.

FAA certification, not weight, to determine inquiries

The NTSB issued a statement of intent to amend sections of 2010 regulations that currently restrict drone accident investigations to commercial craft weighing more than 300 lbs. Rather than continue using weight as the defining consideration, however, the NTSB plans to expand accident investigations to any unmanned aerial system (UAS) that require Federal Aviation Administration certification to operate.

The NTSB says it needs the rule changes to keep pace with intensifying flights of businesses’ drones – in particular quickly developing delivery services.

As drone delivery and other applications develop, airworthiness certification will become more prevalent for certain unmanned aircraft similar to that of manned aircraft. Therefore, an unmanned aircraft—of any size or weight—used for certain activities will require airworthiness certification or approvals due to higher risk potential, such as flights over populated areas for deliveries. Moreover, a substantially-damaged delivery drone may uncover significant safety issues, the investigation of which may enhance aviation safety through the independent and established NTSB process.

“Hobbyist” drones are not affected

The NTSB stipulates its proposed revisions will “only affect those operations under 14 CFR part 107 that apply to small UAS that weigh less than 55 lbs. and hold an airworthiness certificate.” All others, including “hobbyist/modeler operations” with remain outside the agency’s purview.

The move is not only in reaction to the recent spikes in enterprise drone deployment. It also takes into account increasing distances of UAS missions flown, as well as automated flights and Beyond Visual Line of Sight operation that require FAA approval.

The advent of higher capability UAS applications – such as commercial drone delivery flights operating in a higher risk environment (e.g., populated areas, beyond line-of-sight operations, etc.) – has prompted the agency to propose an updated definition of “unmanned aircraft accident”… Only events resulting in serious injury or death will be categorized as an “accident.” 

Rising cases of suspected UAS-caused accidents

To date, virtually all NTSB inquiries involving UAS have been linked to accidents of manned aircraft that drones were suspected to have provoked. Last August the NTSB said a remote-controlled craft was almost certainly the source of damage suffered by a news helicopter during a December 2019 flight in Los Angeles. In its ruling on that case, the agency revealed two other aircraft incidents it believes were the result of collisions with UAS as well.

Given the rapid spread of drone deployment by businesses, the NTSB is anticipating a corresponding rise in future accidents involving drones – and necessity for it to investigate a lot more of those than it has.

If there’s any doubt that far-too-close encounters between drones and aircraft are on the uptick, meanwhile, read our next post about a near-miss incident in Arizona that the Feds are energetically looking into.

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