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Accessing the Growing Market for Drones in the U.S.

It was recently reported that one U.S. retailer had been ordered to pay a fine of nearly $3 million in connection with the marketing of drone transmitters that operated in unauthorized radio frequency bands. The severity of the fine demonstrates why manufacturers and retailers of drones need to be certain that the products they place on the market are safe and comply with relevant legislation.

Drone Market Growth

The “anthropause” – the period when many countries have gone into lockdown because of COVID-19 – has been a chance for all of us to re-evaluate our lives. Many of us have appreciated the temporary respite from the noise, pollution and congestion of modern life. And, as our lives slowly begin to return to normal, we are wondering if technology can be used to make these changes more permanent.

One area that has shown considerable promise in recent years has been the expanded use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones. Until recently, commercially available drones were little more than toys. But that has all changed. By the time the COVID-19 lockdown began, drone technology had advanced to a point where it could successfully and safely deliver life-saving medicines to hospitals while allowing the operators to maintain strict social distancing rules.

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Utilizing drones in this way is not just a response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Indeed, these developments have been in the works for a number of years. One multinational company is so keen to exploit the potential of drones for delivering packages that they already have drone development sites operating in the U.S., United Kingdom, Austria, France and Israel.

Companies are keen to exploit the utility and cost-effectiveness of drones in a number of different theaters. Photography was the initial commercial use because it allowed companies to take photographs in places that would have previously been either prohibitively expensive or impossible. Since then, commercial drone use has expanded to include surveying and mapping, inspecting pipelines, gathering data, search and rescue, tracking criminals, and for checking insurance claims. The agricultural sector has been particularly keen to exploit this technology, using it to monitor animal health, determine weight and movement, survey crops, plan irrigation schemes, and manage pasture and hydration.

Demonstrative of the growth of commercial drone use is the fact that the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) originally estimated it would take until 2022 to reach 450,000 commercial drones in the U.S. a number that was actually matched and exceeded by 2019. Contributing factors towards the exponential growth of this emerging technology include: 

  • Rapid technological advances mean drone users have been able to quickly exploit different commercial opportunities;
  • Compactness and relative simplicity make them an attractive option for businesses operating in a wide variety of environments; and
  • Cost-effective – analysts have estimated cost savings could easily reach $100 billion.

It is hardly surprising therefore that the market for commercial drones is predicted to grow from $4 billion to $40 billion in the next five years.   

Need for Regulation

In recent years, the drone industry has received unwelcome attention because of the actions of a few individuals. As often happens with many emerging technologies, the fast pace of development means legislation and regulation often fail to keep pace.

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There are several ways drones have been misused, including spying, flying contraband over borders or into prisons, and damaging property. What really brought drone misuse to the attention of the public, however, was the threat they present to commercial airplanes. Stories of drones being used to disrupt airports have appeared in newspapers all over the world, for example, Newark Airport (U.S.) in January 2019 and Heathrow Airport (UK) in September 2019. 

In response to this threat, several countries have introduced, or are preparing to introduce, regulations to curb this misuse. In June 2019, the European Union (EU) became the first region to publish a comprehensive set of rules for ensuring the safe, secure and sustainable use of drones. Regulation (EU) 2019/945 and Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947 cover both commercial and leisure use. And, while they do cover product safety, they are equally concerned with the operational use of the drone.

This is something that we see in a number of markets – the conjunction of regulations to control use with additional safety and performance requirements. Perhaps this is a characteristic of all emerging technologies as advances in capability initially outstrip the ability of jurisdictions to regulate them. In many ways, what we are seeing is that these concerns are not related to technology but rather to how the technology is being used. Rather than abandon the technology, we need to rewrite the instruction manual!

It is clear that the authorities drafting regulations have been unable to match the fast rate of growth in the drone sector. For manufacturers of drones looking to operate in these markets, it should be understood that any review of the current regulatory landscape is just a snapshot. As the technology transforms and advances, we can expect new regulations to be introduced to define what is a safe product, and what represents safe and sustainable use.

U.S. Drone Market

Greater commercial use has been the driving force behind the U.S. drone market’s exponential growth. We, therefore, need to start by looking at workplace requirements applicable to drones.

In the U.S., workplace health and safety are controlled and monitored by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA has the right to enter any business and can if its inspectors deem the workplace to be unsafe, close it with immediate effect.

When OSHA investigates a business, among the things they will want to see is whether all electrical products are certified by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL). However, while the U.S. does have a standard for drones – UL 3030 – it has not yet been adopted by OSHA.

Further, drones do not currently fall under the scope of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). However, it is a salutary lesson for drone manufacturers and suppliers to remember that, until a few years ago, hoverboards were also not covered by the CPSC. It then began to emerge that hoverboards were the cause of multiple incidents, including burns and, in one particularly awful incident, a house fire that caused the death of a young girl. It is now a mandatory requirement of the CPSC that all hoverboards supplied in the U.S. must conform to UL 2272.

Therefore, it is not impossible to imagine that the CPSC may require compliance with UL 3030 at some point in the future. At the moment, though, this seems unlikely because much of the debate surrounding drones relates to usage and not product safety.

FAA Regulations

Since many of the reported drone incidents relate to misuse, it is probable that any immediate regulatory interdictions relating to drones would come via the FAA. Part 107 of FAA regulations relates to UAS, covering drones weighing less than 55 pounds but excluding model aircraft. These are operational requirements and include conditions relating to:

  • Flying safely
  • Minimum visibility when flying
  • Maximum speed
  • Maximum height

The regulations make it clear that drones must be flown within unaided sight.

Part 107 also covers drone registration, but it does not include requirements that are directly relevant to manufacturers, beyond the limitations it places upon operators in terms of maximum and minimum capabilities.

FCC Regulations

The only regulatory requirements with which a manufacturer or importer must conform for access to the U.S. market come from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and are related to radio frequency functions. And, as the nearly $3 million fine levied on the retailer we referenced at the beginning of this article demonstrates, the cost of failing to conform to these requirements can be high.

In that case, the FCC found that the video link between the drone and the operator functioned outside of the frequency bands designated for amateur use. The FCC’s investigation found that the company had marketed at least 65 different transmitter models, none of which had been certified. These products were found to be operating in restricted frequencies, which could cause interference with critical FAA systems. In addition, some models were also found to operate at power levels that exceeded FCC limits, meaning they could interfere with FAA terminal doppler weather radar.

The FCC prohibits drones from using the following radio frequency technologies:

  • 6 GHz U-NII devices (a new frequency band, similar to WLAN 5 GHz)
  • Ultra-wideband and wideband transmission systems
  • 57-71 GHz and 92-95 GHz frequency bands

The most commonly used radio frequency technologies used in drones for the U.S. market are:

  • ISM bands: 915 MHz, 2.4 GHz, 5.8 GHz
  • GPS
  • Wi-Fi (WLAN 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz)
  • Bluetooth and other 2.4 GHz technologies

Additionally, it should be noted that radio frequency technologies using UHF 433 MHz, 1.3 GHz, 3.4 GHz, require the operator to hold an amateur (HAM) radio license.

Looking to the Future

It is always dangerous to try to predict the future. Who, for example, would have predicted a global pandemic shutting down entire countries back in October 2019? It is always safer to look at the here and now. When looking at drone regulations, the problem we have is that the history of this technology is defined by rapid advances that outpace the ability of authorities to regulate. In essence, they are always playing catchup.

However, manufacturers should consider two important points when trying to predict the future direction of regulations in relation to this emerging technology. First, much of the growth in this sector is related to commercial operations and this brings it closer to being adopted by OSHA. Second, as the example of the hoverboard demonstrates, it is not without precedent that the CPSC will mandate a standard if it should prove necessary to protect consumers. In either of these scenarios, it is easy to see that UL 3030 (a standard we currently recommend to clients) might well become mandatory.

UL 3030

Published in September, 2018, UL 3030:2018, Standard for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, covers the electrical system of unmanned aircraft systems used in flight for commercial applications or flight incidental to business applications for both the U.S. and Canadian markets. The drones covered by the standard are intended for use by certified UAS pilots, as identified in Federal regulations.

UAS, or drones, are defined in the standard as being:

  • For outdoor use;
  • Less than 55 lbs. (24 kg);
  • Provided with an internal lithium ion battery that is charged from an external source; and
  • Operating at a voltage of no greater than 100 V dc

Commercial applications include, but are not limited to:

  • Agricultural applications
  • Scientific or research applications
  • Government or local police applications
  • Search and rescue applications
  • Video applications for the film industry or news broadcasts

A subset of commercial applications, “flight incidental to business,” covers things like roof inspections by insurance agents or construction workers, or real estate photography.

UL 3030 does not cover:

  • Model or hobby UASs which are marketed to and intended to be operated by the general public;
  • Aspects of control associated with the human pilot (pilot error), UAS handling, contact or impact of the UAS with external objects, people or structures, adverse weather conditions such as high winds that may affect operation, or the general airworthiness of the aircraft;
  • The ability of the UAS to correctly or adequately perform its intended operation;
  • The ability of the UAS to land safely if the battery is discharged in flight;
  • Physiological effects associated with the use of UASs;
  • Devices intended for use in hazardous (classified) locations, which are subject to additional requirements to mitigate risks of fire and explosion;
  • UASs used for any military or similar tactical operations;
  • The efficacy of UAS communications or the effects of the loss of UAS communication during flight.

The standard covers the requirements associated with electrical shock, fire and explosion hazards relating to the inherent features of the UAS, as well as the battery and charger system combinations provided for recharging the UAS.

Battery Requirements

UL 3030 allows for UAS batteries to be provided as either individual cells, configured around the design of the UAS, or as complete battery packs. The standard provides the following provisions:

  • Section 17.2.2 – Individual lithium ion or other lithium-based cells must comply with the requirements for secondary lithium cells in UL 2580, Standard for Batteries for Use in Electric Vehicles, or UL 1642, Standard for Lithium Batteries
  • Section 17.2.3 – Battery packs must conform to one of the following:
    • UL 2580 – Standard for Batteries for Use in Electric Vehicles
    • UL 2271 – Standard for Batteries for Use in Light Electric Vehicle (LEV) Applications
    • UL 62133 – Standard for Secondary Cells and Batteries Containing Alkaline or Other Non-Acid Electrolytes – Safety Requirements for Portable Sealed Secondary Cells, and for Batteries Made from Them, for Use in Portable Applications

Manufacturers should also note that, if the battery pack can be replaced by the user or can be removed for charging, it must be marked or designed to ensure that the battery can only be replaced in one direction. If this is not the case, then an internal battery reverse polarity test must be performed (Section 32.5).

Motor Requirements

According to UL 3030, the motor in a UAS must be safe under normal conditions and should not be hazardous under overload conditions. It must be capable of carrying the maximum normal anticipated load without exceeding temperatures on insulation and windings as determined during the temperature test.

UL 3030 states that motors located in hazardous voltage circuits must comply with the requirements of both of the following standards:

  • UL 1004-1 – Standard for Rotating Electrical Machines – General Requirements
  • CSA C22.2 No. 100 – Motors and Generators

“Hazardous voltage” is defined as voltage exceeding 30 V rms/42.4 V ac peak or 60 V dc.

Motors that are located in low voltage circuits should either comply with the requirements of UL 3030 or either of the above standards.

In addition to these provisions, UL 3030 also covers a wide range of other construction criteria, including:

  • Metallic and non-metallic materials
  • Enclosures
  • Assembly
  • Internal wiring and terminals
  • Chargers
  • Insulation levels and protective grounding
  • Protection circuits and safety analysis
  • Printed wiring boards
  • Spacings and separation of circuits
  • Fuses

As a comprehensive standard, UL 3030 also contains provisions relating to performance testing:

  • Temperature test (charging and flying)
  • Dielectric voltage withstand
  • Isolation resistance
  • Capacitor discharge
  • Vibration
  • Strength of enclosures
  • Water exposure
  • Motor overload

There are also a wide variety of provisions relating to abnormal operations including, inter alia, overcharge, disconnected fans/blocked vents, relay and solenoid burnout, and imbalanced charging.

Moving Forward

The global COVID-19 Pandemic has helped to highlight the benefits of commercial drone use in terms of cost effectiveness and utility. As we return to normality, it is clear this is an emerging technology that has proven itself and is here to stay.

The U.S., like other countries, may soon find that their current legislation is inadequate for this growing market. Its mandatory FAA and FCC requirements only relate to operation and radio frequency technology, but it is possible to see that, as the market expands and new suppliers come online, product safety may become an issue that requires more comprehensive regulation.

UL 3030 is currently only a recommended standard for manufacturers operating in the United States. But there is a real possibility that growth in commercial drone use may lead to its adoption by OSHA. If this happens, then all drones used in the workplace would require NRTL certification.

In theory, this would not affect the sale of non-commercial drones because OSHA has no jurisdiction over the home or the retailer. However, the boundaries between home and workplace are increasingly becoming blurred and electrical products sold in the high street can often be found in both settings. If a non-commercial drone is accidentally supplied for commercial use, then it would need to be NRTL certified and it does not matter where it was purchased.

Manufacturers are therefore advised to consider adopting the UL 3030 standard as part of a pre-emptive risk management strategy to avoid possible future legislative non-compliance.

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