Tethered v. Untethered

Some of the questions we get asked most frequently involve the use of a tether on a UAS. Is it still a UAS?  Are you bound by any regulations if the UAS is tethered?  Can I get around the commercial UAS ban simply by putting a cable on it?

Up until this summer, an argument could have been made that the FAA was permitting tethered UAS operations.  That argument, however, is no longer valid.

The origins of the UAS tether conundrum can be found in FAA National Policy Statement 8900.207.  That document contained the following definition of an unmanned aircraft:

[A] device used or intended to be used for flight in the air that has no onboard pilot.  This devise (sic) excludes missiles, weapons, or exploding warheads, but includes all classes of airplanes, helicopters, airships, and powered lift aircraft without an onboard pilot.  UA do not include traditional balloons (refer to 14 C.F.R part 101), rockets, tethered aircraft and un-powered gliders.

Thus, you had a statement by the FAA that implied that a UAS with a tether on it was no longer a UAS for purposes of some of the FAA’s regulations.

That National Policy Statement expired on January 22, 2014, and was replaced by National Policy Statement 8900.227, which retained the definition.  National Policy Statement 8900.227 was officially cancelled on July 30, 2014.  It was not, however, superseded by a new National Policy Statement.  The absence of a new National Policy Statement has led many to believe that, despite the clear cancellation date, the information in the document is still valid, and a tethered UAS is not a UAS.

What seems to have escaped most people’s notice, however, is that a new National Policy Statement was no longer necessary because the material was incorporated directly into FAA Order 8900.1, on June 23, 2014.  See FAA Order 8900.1 Chg. 351.  The current version of the definition of UAS from Order 8900.1 states:

  1. Unmanned Aircraft (UA). A device used or intended to be used for flight in the air that has no onboard pilot.  This device excludes missiles, weapons, or exploding warheads, but includes all classes of airplanes, helicopters, airships, and powered-lift aircraft without an onboard pilot.  UAs do not include traditional balloons (refer to CFR part 101), rockets, and unpowered gliders.

FAA Order 8900.1, 16-1-2-1(KK).  Note that “tethered aircraft” is not mentioned in the definition.  With this new definition, there is now no basis to argue that a tethered UAS is excluded from any of the restrictions placed on all UAS.

As a result, people should not be confused into thinking that they can fly a UAS commercially to take real estate photos or run inspections so long as they use a tether.  According to inquiries we have made with the UAS Integration Office, a tether can still be proposed as an alternate means of compliance when an operator wants to make his or her safety case as part of a Section 333 Exemption Petition, but specific authorization from the FAA is still required as part of any commercial operation, tethered or untethered.

(Originally posted November 9, 2014)

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