Drones at Air Shows and Other Aviation Events
By John Sawyer, FAA’s UAS Integration Office
Whether it is promoting the Super Bowl, a drone demonstration at an air show, or a drone racing event at the World Games, drones are making their way into aviation events all over the world. Drones can fly in formation to create amazing light shows, provide security, revolutionize live video coverage, and even serve as the main event. The use of drones in these events is a marvelous spectacle to watch, but the work behind the scenes to make these events successful gets little attention.
The FAA has implemented the National Aviation Events Program to ensure flight safety at air shows and events that feature drones. All such events undergo months of preparation and intense scrutiny to ensure that the necessary exemptions, waivers, and approvals can be fully evaluated to ensure an acceptable level of safety.
Under this program, drones can be approved under one of three pathways; 14 CFR part 107, 14 CFR part 91, or under Title 49 U.S.C. section 44809 if flown for recreational/educational purposes. As with all drone operations, the pathway is determined by the size of the aircraft and the nature of its use. Each pathway has its own set of requirements, but all center around establishing procedures that ensure flight safety.
Part 107 Operations
Operations under part 107 require an airspace authorization in accordance with section 107.41 and may also require several waivers based on the specifics of the operation. If the event includes any drones or pilots registered or certified in a foreign county, the review and approval process will involve coordination with the Department of Transportation to ensure the requirements of 14 CFR part 375 can be met. These operations also require a full safety risk analysis by the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) to ensure the operation can be conducted with an acceptable level of safety.
Part 91 Operations
Drone operations under part 91 require a Certificate of Authorization, an airspace authorization (if in controlled airspace), and potentially several waivers based on the specifics of the operation. Exemptions to rules (e.g., part 61 pilot certification rules) may also be necessary. In addition, the same coordination will need to occur for any foreign aircraft or pilots to ensure compliance with part 375. These operations usually involve drones 55 pounds and above and require a full safety risk analysis by the FSDO.
Section 44809 Operations
Drone operations that can meet the requirements to operate as recreational flights under section 44809 do not have quite as many requirements as those conducted for commercial purposes, but the approval process still includes a significant level of safety assessment. These operations must follow section 44809 rules as well as the safety guidelines of a community-based organization and require an airspace authorization if operating in controlled airspace. The recreational flyer must complete The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST). Similar to the other pathways to approval, these operations require a full safety risk analysis by the local FSDO.
You may have noticed that one of the common requirements of these pathways is a full safety risk analysis by the local FSDO. The FAA has created several tools to assist these professionals in evaluating and mitigating risk, including Safety Risk Management training and a detailed checklist to follow. This checklist is a tool to establish collaboration between drone aviation event applicants and FAA personnel. It helps inspectors make site-specific risk-based decisions for the integration of drones into these events by considering every detail of the operation.
The collaboration required by professionals across the FAA and the event organizers is a thorough process that covers every aspect of the event. This process also allows event sponsors to show FAA inspectors that the operation will comply with all applicable rules or that adequate mitigations will be in place to ensure a level of safety equivalent to that established by the regulations. This effort often takes months of intense work by numerous FAA offices, all initiated and led by the local FSDO.
So, the next time you see drones performing synchronized flying as part of a light show, providing live video coverage, or exciting a crowd with high-speed drone racing, you can rest assured that the FAA worked hard to ensure the level of safety the public demands.
John Sawyer is a program manager in the FAA’s UAS Integration Office.