Your Business Drone Crashed... What Do You Do?
By: Abigail Roberts
Understanding FAA & NTSB Drone Accident Reporting RequirementsWhen a corporate drone crashes, it can be one of the worst-case scenarios for owners who rely on UAS technology to conduct a wide-array of business functions. Aside from the obvious monetary concerns, however, commercial drone owners and operators need to be familiar with the accident reporting requirements of both the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) and National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”). Although the respective regulations complement each other in many respects, the FAA and NTSB requirements are not identical. The following is an overview of the current regulations related to drone accident reporting. Included at the end of this article, are several practical examples of when FAA and/or NTSB accident reports would be required during commercial drone operations.
FAA Accident Reporting RequirementsAs commercial drone owner/operators are now well-aware, 14 C.F.R. Part 107 contains the current regulatory framework for the operation of small UAS in the National Airspace. In addition to containing certain regulatory guidelines- such as the requirements that an unmanned aircraft weigh less than 55 pounds and be operated solely in the Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) of the operator at nearly all times- the FAA regulations also contain an accident reporting requirement if the accident results in either personal injury or property damage. Specifically, 14 C.F.R. §107.9 states:
No later than 10 days after an operation that meets the criteria of either paragraph (a) or (b) of this section, a remote pilot in command must report to the Federal Aviation Administration in a manner acceptable to the Administrator, any operation of the small unmanned aircraft involving at least:
b. Damage to any property, other than the small unmanned aircraft, unless one of the following conditions is satisfied:
ii. The fair market value of the property does not exceed $500 in the event of a total loss.
To Report or Not To ReportThe first analysis a Remote Pilot must undertake when determining whether an accident is required to be reported to the FAA under Part 107 is whether a “serious injury” or a “loss of consciousness” occurs. Under these scenarios, an accident must be reported to the FAA within 10 calendar days. FAA Advisory Circular 107-2 (“AC 107-2”) notes that a “serious injury” is one which is a Level 3 or higher on the Abbreviated Injury Scale (AIS) of the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine (AAAM). In this system, injuries are ranked on a scale of 1-6 as follows:
- Level 1 (Minor Injury);
- Level 2 (Moderate Injury);
- Level 3 (Serious Injury);
- Level 4 (Severe Injury):
- Level 5 (Critical Injury); and
- Level 6 (Non-survivable injury).
Second, the Remote Pilot needs to assess whether any reportable property damage occurred. Under Part 107, an accident must be reported to the FAA if it causes damage to property other than the drone itself, if the cost is greater than $500 to repair or replace the property (whichever is lower). The following example provided in the Advisory Circular gives practical guidance for the real-world application of these principles:
NTSB Accident Reporting Requirements: Separate But Not EqualIn addition to the Part 107 FAA reporting requirements, a drone operator needs to understand that there may also be separate accident reporting requirements to the NTSB. To assist drone operators with this analysis, in July 2016, the NTSB issued an “Advisory to Operators of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the United States.” (“NTSB Advisory”) In the NTSB advisory, the NTSB notes that commercial or business civil UAS operators also have to comply with the NTSB’s accident and incident reporting requirements in Part 830 of title 49, Code of Federal Regulations. Id.
By way of history, the NTSB revised Part 830 of its regulations in August 2010 to clarify that the accident/incident notification requirements apply to Civil UAS. The NSTB Advisory notes that Section 830.5 “instructs operators…to immediately, and by the most expeditious means available, notify the NTSB when an accident or listed incident occurs.” Id.
An “unmanned aircraft accident is defined in 49 C.F.R. §830.2 as an occurrence associated with the operation of any public or civil unmanned aircraft system 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 the mission in which:
2. The aircraft has a maximum gross takeoff weight of 300 pounds or greater and sustains substantial damage.”
See NTSB Advisory. The NTSB Advisory notes that an “[a]ccident will result in the NTSB’s initiating an investigation and report with a determination of probable cause.” Id. However, “[i]n order to minimize the burden on operators of a small UAS and the NTSB, [the NTSB has] exempted from the definition of ‘aircraft accident’ and ‘unmanned aircraft accident’ in section 830.2 of the NTSB regulations those events in which there is only substantial damage to the aircraft (no injuries) and the aircraft has a maximum gross takeoff weight of less than 300 pounds.” Id. The NTSB Advisory further notes that “although any of the incidents enumerated in section 830.5 would require the operator to notify the NTSB, the agency at its discretion may decide to conduct a full investigation with probable cause.” Id.
As a result of the above-cited regulatory guidance, a Remote Pilot needs to understand the separate statutory definitions of “serious injury” and “substantial damage” as it relates to the NTSB requirements. Note, however, that these are not necessarily the same as the standards utilized by the FAA. 49 CFR §830.2 defines “serious injury” to include any injury which:
2. results in a fracture of any bone (except simple fractures of fingers, toes, or nose);
3. causes severe hemorrhages, nerve, muscle, or tendon damage;
4. involves any internal organ; or
5. involves second- or third-degree burns, or any burns affecting more than 5 percent of the body surface.
Regarding property damage, 49 CFR §830.2 defines “substantial damage” to mean “[d]amage or failure which adversely affects the structural strength, performance, or flight characteristics of the aircraft, and which would normally require major repair or replacement of the affected component. Engine failure or damage limited to an engine if only one engine fails or is damaged, bent fairings or cowling, dented skin, small punctured holes in the skin or fabric, ground damage to rotor or propeller blades, and damage to landing gear, wheels, tires, flaps, engine accessories, brakes, or wingtips are not considered ‘substantial damage’ for the purpose of this part.” Please note that this requirement is significantly different than the FAA reporting requirement for damage, which does not consider the damage to the drone itself.
NTSB: You’re Not Done YetThe NTSB Advisory also puts UAS operators on notice that they must consider “[t]hat the rest of the reporting requirements for serious incidents listed in section 830.5 apply regardless of UAS weight. Listed serious incidents that apply to all UAS include the following events:
- Flight control system malfunction or failure: For an unmanned aircraft, a true “fly-away” would qualify. A lost link that behaves as expected does not qualify.
- Inability of any required flight crew member to perform normal flight duties as a result of injury or illness. Example of required flight crewmembers include the pilot, remote pilot; or visual observer if required by regulation. This does not include an optional payload operator.
- Inflight fire, which is expected to be generally associated with batteries.
- Aircraft collision in flight.
- More than $25,000 in damage to objects other than the aircraft.
- Release of all or a portion of a propeller blade from an aircraft, excluding release caused solely by ground contact.
- Damage to helicopter tail or main rotor blades, including ground damage, that requires major repair or replacement of the blade (s).
- An aircraft is overdue and is believed to have been involved in an accident.”
- See NTSB Advisory.
Practical ExamplesThe NTSB Advisory includes several examples of potential events to provide guidance on accident reporting, each of which are reproduced below. We have also included a corollary analysis for these examples under Part 107 to demonstrate how the applications can vary based on the FAA and/or NTSB requirements:
1. A small multirotor UAS has a fly-away and crashes into a tree, destroying the aircraft:
- The NTSB Advisory states: “Not an Accident (though substantial damage, too small, and no injures), but the operator is required to notify the NTSB of a flight control malfunction. NTSB may initiate an investigation and report with a determination of probable cause.”
- FAA/Part 107: This is not a reportable accident under the Part 107 because it only caused damage to the UA itself and did not result in injuries or damage to other property.
2. A small multirotor UAS has a fly-away and strikes a bystander causing serious injury:
- The NSTB Advisory state: “Accident (resulted in serious injury). The operator is required to immediately notify the NTSB. The NTSB must investigate the accident and determine a probable cause.”
- FAA/Part 107: This is a reportable accident under Part 107 because it resulted in “serious injury” to a person.
3. A small multirotor UAS hits a tree due to pilot inattention on a windy day:
- The NTSB Advisory states: “Not an Accident (too small, even if substantial damage). However, the operator is required to notify the NTSB if other criteria of 830.5 are met. NTSB may initiate an investigation and report with a determination of probable cause.”
- FAA/Part 107: This is not a reportable accident under Part 107 because it did not result in property damage greater than $500.
- The NTSB Advisory states: “Accident (substantial damage and gross takeoff weight of 300 lbs. or greater). The operator is required to immediately notify the NTSB. The NTSB must investigate and determine a probable cause. “
- FAA/Part 107: This scenario would not ordinarily arise under the current Part 107 regulatory scenario because the aircraft’s weight exceeds the 55 pounds threshold.
Additional InformationCopies of the respective Advisory Circulars can be found on the FAA and NTSB websites and provide further guidance on these topics. Links to the respective Advisories are included here: