Drones as heavy as 300 pounds have found a home in New York. Most of the drones everyday folks think of (including the drones primarily covered on this website) weigh less than 55 pounds. But now, heavyweight drones (at least those up to 300 pounds) are welcome to the party. Yes, you read that right — 300 pounds.
55 pounds has largely been the maximum size of what people talk about in the commercial drone space. That’s largely because the Federal Aviation Administration’s Small Unmanned Aircraft System Rule (officially titled 14 CFR part 107) is only applicable to unmanned aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds at takeoff. It’s relatively easy to get a drone pilot’s license to operate drones under 55 pounds and — save for what is relatively few exceptions like restricted airspace — drones under the 55-pound threshold can generally be legally flown in the U.S.
For drones any larger than that, it gets a lot more complicated. Some commercial operations may apply for a 49 U.S.C 44807 Grant of exemption. You might apply for special airworthiness certificates in the experimental category, generally by using FAA Form 8130-7. Or, you might head to the New York Uncrewed Aircraft Systems (UAS) Test Site at Griffiss International Airport.
Thanks to an FAA grant specific to the New York Uncrewed Aircraft Systems (UAS) Test Site at Griffiss International Airport new civil authority, drones up to 300-pounds have far more freedom to fly than ever before. As of spring 2023, the test site can now operate drones weighing under 300 pounds throughout New York’s 50-mile drone corridor and be compensated for operations.
300 pounds opens up the door for drones to carry bigger payloads. It also allows engineers to include features that make drones more robust, such as more powerful engines, bigger batteries, performance-improving systems like oil coolers, and more.
That 50-mile corridor “opened” in 2019 as a sort of virtual highway made up of sensors and radar. It runs from Central New York to the Mohawk Valley, covering one of the most rural areas of New York, and it’s been a critical tool for testing drones and UTM technology in real world settings. New York’s 50-mile UAS Corridor covers class G, E, D, and C airspace and is integrated with the air traffic control towers of both Griffiss and Syracuse Hancock International Airports, offering up a model for how both crewed and uncrewed aircraft can share airspace.
And now, the additional ability to now test drones of massive size provides a path for scalable, commercial drone operations beyond what’s been done.
“This new FAA designation removes some previous restrictions making it easier to test larger drones,” said Oneida County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. “Our test site is already the global leader for UAS research and development, and now, we will be able to test more advanced operations and be financially compensated for it.”
Why are 300 pound drones in New York, specifically?
The state is best known for the Big Apple, but — with this new FAA grant — it might soon be known for big drones too. New York has long been a leader in drones among the U.S. states, something that largely kicked off in November of 2016, when then-Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $30 million state investment to develop a drone traffic management system between Syracuse and the FAA’s NYS UAS Test Site at Griffiss International Airport.
Since then, the state has invested many more millions of dollars (north of $70 million) into drones, which includes millions of dollars invested in drone startups alone through the annual GENIUS NY accelerator competition.
Much of that money is spent in and around the New York UAS Test Site, which is one of seven FAA-designated test sites in the country. There, it’s hosted many notable test projects and research efforts, including a 5G drone test project that made New York the site of the first-ever FAA-designated UAS test site with a bespoke 5G network. It’s also been the site of testing projects that are more tangible, including drone parachutes.
It’s also the site of a UTM Field Test project, which will be a key driver in future plans for drone traffic management. The FAA UTM Field Test project started in July 2022 and is expected to commence sometime during the spring of 2023.
For the past decade, New York’s test site has been operating under a different authority called public aircraft operations (PAO) for the last decade for research and development and other core governmental functions. It claims to have conducted over 5,000 test flights over the past decade and completed multiple projects with the FAA and NASA The new civil authority (Waiver 44803c) “Charlie Waiver” covers New York’s 50-mile beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) UAS corridor connecting Griffiss and Syracuse Hancock International airports.
And some industry insiders suspect that this will only draw more money into the state.
“NUAIR is focused on unlocking the drone economy for the state of New York,” said NUAIR CEO Ken Stewart. “This new civil authority will help draw more clients to the Test Site who are focused on commercial outcomes, and we look forward to helping them scale their operations.”