Now that the UAS flight over people and remote ID rules are in effect, the pathways are opening up for more complex, and potentially dangerous, UAS operations.  The FAA, however, is not the only governmental body concerned with aviation accidents.  The National Transportation Safety Board plays an important role in ensuring the welfare of the National Airspace System.

The NTSB is charged with investigating and establishing the facts, circumstances, and probable cause of every civil aviation accident in the United States.  Not every occurrence or anomaly in flight, however, is considered an accident that requires an NTSB investigation.

Currently, the NTSB defines an “unmanned aircraft accident” which must be reported as:

an occurrence associated with the operation of an unmanned aircraft that takes place between the time that the system is activated with the purpose of flight and the time that the system is deactivated at the conclusion of its mission, and in which any person suffers death or serious injury, or in which the aircraft has a maximum gross takeoff weight of 300 lbs. or greater and receives substantial damage.

As you can see, the definition of a UAS accident is fairly narrow, and only includes very large UAS or serious injury to a person.  The NTSB felt it unnecessary to investigate small UAS accidents because they can suffer “substantial damage” without necessarily involving a significant safety issue.

However, given the continued rise of higher risk operations, such as commercial package delivery, flight over populated areas, and Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations, the NTSB is concerned that these assumptions are no longer true.  As a result, the NTSB has proposed to expand its definition of “unmanned aircraft accident,” and has filed a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) regarding the changes.

The NPRM, entitled Amendment to the Definition of Unmanned Aircraft Accident, finds that:

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. This proposed definition change will treat a UAS with airworthiness certification or airworthiness approval in the same manner as a manned aircraft with airworthiness certification or airworthiness approval, thereby enabling the NTSB to immediately investigate, influence corrective actions, and propose safety recommendations.

As a result, the proposed definition of “unmanned aircraft accident” will be amended by removing the phrase “has a maximum gross takeoff weight of 300 lbs. or greater,” and replacing it with “holds an airworthiness certificate or approval.”

The NTSB is soliciting public comments on the proposal through July 20, 2021.  For those who have an opinion and want their voces to be heard, comments can be submitted to the Docket HERE.