Saturday, February 25, 2023

The FCC Proposes Rules for UAS Operations on Licensed Frequencies

The Federal Communications Commission ("FCC") in Washington, D.C., has recently proposed rules to enable wireless communications for unmanned aircraft systems ("UAS") to operate on licensed frequencies in the 5030-5091 MHz frequency band. As stated  in its Public Notice dated January 4, 2023, the FCC seeks comment regarding whether measures are necessary to facilitate such use on flexible-use wireless networks.  The FCC notes that unmanned aircraft systems today primarily operate under unlicensed and low-power wireless communications rules or experimental licenses.  Given what it identifies as the important current and potential uses for these systems, the FCC  is considering ways to improve the reliability of their operations, such as by allocating licensed frequencies for UAS utilization.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is quoted in the Public Notice as saying: “It is past time that we assess the availability of wireless communications resources for the increasingly important remote-piloted aircraft activity we rely on today. The FCC must ensure that our spectrum rules meet the current – and future – spectrum needs of evolving technologies such as unmanned aircraft systems, which can be critical to disaster recovery, first responder rescue efforts, and wildfire management.”

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”), also released by the FCC on January 4, 2023, seeks comment on service rules for the 5030-5091 MHz band that would provide unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operators with access to licensed spectrum with the reliability necessary to support safety-critical UAS communications links. The NPRM notes that “As unmanned aircraft (UA) flights increasingly involve operations with a higher risk profile, such as flights that use large aircraft, carry heavy cargo or human passengers, or travel into the controlled airspace used by commercial passenger aircraft, operators have a growing need for the greater reliability that interference-protected licensed spectrum provides for control-related and other safety-related communications.”

The NPRM also seeks comment regarding whether the FCC’s rules for various flexible-use spectrum bands are sufficient to ensure co-existence of terrestrial mobile operations and UAS use or whether changes to FCC rules are necessary to prevent or mitigate interference and performance concerns.  Also, to further promote the safe integration of unmanned aircraft operations in controlled airspace and facilitate flight coordination, the NPRM proposes a process for UAS operators to obtain a license in the aeronautical VHF band to communicate with air traffic control and other aircraft while maintaining the integrity of the band. 

Comments are due to be filed with the FCC no later than March 9, 2023.  Reply comments are due April 10, 2023. The link to the publication of the NPRM  in the Federal Register can be found here.