How to get your FAA Part 135 Certification: Drone Delivery and more…

In Drone Law Blog, Drone Uses, ROI and Industry Case Studies by Enrico Schaefer

The FAA continues to allow more types of UAV operations, including some recent Part 135 certification for drone delivery.  In this DLP radio interview, we speak with Guido Fuentes, VP facilitation and training for PRISM Solution, which is Professional Resources in System. PRISM is one of the few company to receive Part 135 certification on behalf of its client.   Mr. Fuentes is here to provide his insights into the process, the FAA’s approach and a successful FAA Part 135 application.


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Enrico Schaefer: This is Enrico Schaefer on Drone Law Pro Radio. Today we’ve got a guest that’s going to talk about something that is near and dear to all of your hearts, which is going to be Part 135. This is the relevant certification that’s going to be required in order to do drone delivery. We’ve got Guido Fuentes here today to talk a little bit about how to get through that process, some use cases that we’re starting to see out there in the market to be able to do drone delivery services, the types of things that UPS wants to do and Amazon wants to do, hospitals want to do, and many others want to do in order to extend their drone services. Guido Fuentes, welcome to the show.

Guido Fuentes: Yes, thank you. Thank you very much.

Enrico Schaefer: Good. You are the VP facilitation and training for PRISM Solution, which is Professional Resources in System Management, LLC. Tell us a little bit about PRISM and your background.

Guido Fuentes: Sure. Sure. My original training is in aeronautical engineering. I graduated from the United States Air Force Academy about 30 years ago. I have been working in the aviation industry for all this time in various capacities, but especially in what has to do with safety. Safety in aviation is something that encompasses absolutely everything, since we’re talking about safety as something that can be affected by not only the operational side or the technical side, but the organizational side as well.

Now that we’re in the UAS arena with the great potential of UAS commercial operations, we are now doing everything as required for those operations to be safe. One of the things that I do regarding safety is not just the implementation of safety management systems, which is an integral part of UAS operations commercially, but things like meeting the requirements for the FAA, in this case, the Part 135 requirements, which basically means to be able to fly or to conduct commercial operations for hire, for compensation, in U.S. airspace.

Now, let me talk a little bit about PRISM. PRISM, Professional Resources in System Management, is a wholly owned subsidiary of a larger organization called ARGUS International. PRISM is a very diverse organization. We have all kinds of different types of services. The one that I currently do is training and facilitation, facilitation basically meaning allowing customers to achieve their goal. In this case, the goal could be achieving Part 135 certification to be able to operate commercially on demand in the U.S. We also do training in all kinds of safety-related subjects. We also do certification assistance, which is also the Part 135 work that we do with UAS operators.

There are other sides to our business. We offer an online solution for operators of all sorts, including UAS operators, to run their safety management system. A safety management system is a basic requirement from the FAA, from ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, really worldwide, for anybody that flies, in this case, the FAA, [for a] Part 135 operator, for drones or for other types of manned aircraft that are required to have an SMS. We offer an online solution for SMS, and we are the biggest provider in the business aviation segment, although we do have many UAS operators also, as well, using our tool.

We also have the same type of service exclusively for helicopters. We have a separate helicopter division which runs the safety management system tool and support for helicopter operators. By the way, many of these helicopter operators are now diversifying into UAS as an option or a compliment to their business model.

We also have a separate unmanned aviation safety division, which provides consulting not only on 135 or FAA-approved operations, but on any other operation, like government operations or private operations that can be conducted anywhere in the world to support things like energy companies inspecting power lines or all kinds of different functions.

We also have a separate business aviation consulting division, where we run various types of business aviation-related programs for other types of operators, like Part 91, which are flight [departments], et cetera. We are very diverse and we are basically now using this expertise to support the emerging Part 135 market for unmanned aircraft systems.

Enrico Schaefer: Right. Of course, the SUAS community has been waiting a long time to engage in a variety of different operations. The FAA has slowly been loosening its grip as the safety cases have been made for various operators and various types of operations. Let’s talk a little bit about Part 135, because drone delivery has been part of the discussion for many years, and because of Amazon and some of the others who have been working towards drone delivery, it’s gotten a lot of press. A lot of folks in the space, a lot of the service providers, would love to, of course, jump right into drone delivery. That’s not going to happen without some effort and without some resources invested. Let’s talk a little bit about what the use cases are first for Part 135. What are you seeing out there in the market?

Guido Fuentes: Sure. Sure. Part 135 really means that we have the green light, the seal of approval from the FAA, to conduct UAS operations in controlled U.S. airspace. In order for the FAA to give the green light for continuous, ondemand operations like delivering packages  or let’s call them payloads, since it’s really not just packages, but all kinds of other different types of products  to deliver those payloads, the FAA has to assure that everything is done safely. That’s what the FAA calls the acceptable level of safety. They have to be sure that the operator, big or small, for UAS, is going to meet an acceptable level of safety.

In order to do that, they have to frame it within one of the existing or a new framework that will guarantee that all regulations that guarantee that minimum acceptable level of safety are met. The regulation that exists already that is the one that most clearly will adapt or is now currently adapting to UAS operations for delivering payloads, all kinds of payloads, big or small, over long or short ranges, is Part 135, which is basically the one that manned operators follow when they want to conduct charter flights.

Charter flights simply means you have a company or an individual that hires this organization to transport their payload in a manned airplane from point†A to point†B. That’s really the same as when a customer asks a UAS operator to transport their payload, smaller than in a manned airplane, but important, from point†A to point†B. It’s exactly the same. Basically, the operator is getting paid to transport that payload from point†A to point†B. We’re just doing it in a different way, and we have a much smaller altitude, so lower altitudes as well as smaller payloads. But the only way the FAA can kind of assure that this can be done safely is by using that framework, the 135 framework. That really is the only one that fits that model for conducting commercial operations in UAS.

That’s basically where the 135 requirement comes into play. In other words, no UAS operator will be able to conduct any kind of drone package or payload delivery of any sort, no matter how important it is, in U.S. airspace, unless they have met all the requirements from Part 135. In other words, they need to become an official charter operator, ondemand charter operator for hire, under the FAA regulations, Part 135.

Enrico Schaefer: Obviously, besides drone delivery, what are the types of service providers out there that you expect are going to want to get some sort of Part 135 certification?

Guido Fuentes: Right. Well, the rule is very clear from the FAA. There’s really no choice here. The answer is any kind of operator that will basically move package or the payload from point†A to point†B and will get paid, so it’s a commercial operation, so any commercial operation for profit. This, of course, excludes military operations or government operations, but everything else that is for hire are basically the ones that are now required to have the approval from the FAA. Otherwise, they couldn’t operate at all.

Enrico Schaefer: Yep. We know a couple companies have made it through the Part 135 certification process, Wing and UPS.

Guido Fuentes: Mm-hmm.

Enrico Schaefer: What kinds of operations are those companies expecting to run?

Guido Fuentes: Sure. These companies, having a 135 certificate, will be able to basically let the FAA know which routes they want to use and basically make deliveries of payloads anywhere in the U.S. Even though these are ondemand operations, what they actually do is they set up fixed, specific locations and fixed and specific routes. This couldn’t be just some random route where people will say, “Well, deliver a pizza to a location that really has never been visited by the drone at all.” These are still very structured routes. It’s just that they will only fly whenever there is demand for that, for delivering the payload. But that’s the way they will do it.

Once they decide where the demand is, where the market is for delivering the payload, they establish that fixed route or that fixed corridor or that fixed geographical location where they need to fly to, and they basically declare that to the FAA. So the FAA needs to know which specific routes you will fly. It isn’t like they’re just going to fly from city†A to city†B without telling the FAA. That has to be already established in a document the FAA calls the operational specifications, so they know exactly which drones you’re using, exactly which routes you will be flying, even though it’s on demand. You’re not flying them every day, maybe.

You also need to declare who your pilots are, who your technicians are, who is in charge of managing the organization, such as the director of flight operations, the director of maintenance, the director of safety, who’s the accountable executive, in other words, the one that makes all decisions and ultimately is responsible for safety, and that needs to be somebody like the CEO of the organization. That’s the way these two operators should be establishing their delivery routes today. In other words, everything will be written down very clearly and approved by the FAA in a document called the operation specification. That’s basically kind of the description of what they will fly and how they will fly.

Enrico Schaefer: Of course, the routes are important because the FAA is always trying to manage the airspace and ensure that there’s not going to be any interaction not only between unmanned and manned aircraft, but also unmanned and unmanned aircraft. How is the FAA going through that process of determining what the initial routes are going to be? I know they’re focused on some more rural areas.

Guido Fuentes: Sure. Well, there’s two parts to this. One is the initial testing that is being done. That initial testing is being done through what is called the IPP, the U.S. Integration Pilot Program, which is basically testing, testing all kinds of systems to come up with data that will tell us whether or not we achieve a minimum level of safety when we try to fly the drones from point†A to point†B, within line-of-sight or not, in short ranges, long ranges, et cetera. On one hand, we have those testing grounds as part of the IPP program, where the FAA is testing the technology as well as the operational procedures, along with many operators and many cities and other entities, to come up with a solution. So the FAA is learning just as much as we are, as operators are learning as well. That is happening right now as part of the IPP.

Based on the data that they gather  so the IPP should last for approximately another year, and then it ends  using that data, the FAA will come up with a final solution as to how they will control or safely assure the minimum level of safety for UAS operations, based on that data, based on what industry is able to do, based on the technological solutions that are available. That, of course, will need to be adopted by every drone operator that wants to deliver payloads or packages for hire.

Enrico Schaefer: Exactly. This is going to be a process, and it’s not like these companies are getting their certification and start flying all over the United States and doing whatever they want. It’s a very controlled approach that the FAA has put in place for almost every aspect of SUAS. This is no exception.

Guido Fuentes: Yeah.

Enrico Schaefer: Guido, what would be the expected process, if I’m, for instance, an oil field company and I’ve got a couple years under my belt as SUAS operations, doing inspections or what have you at my rigs, and now I want to start rolling out a program under Part 135? I come to a company like yours to assist and to consult me through the process. What should I expect that process to be?

Guido Fuentes: Sure. Sure. The fact that you already have a proven operation is a big plus. However, it doesn’t guarantee success. Here’s the process. Basically, what we need to do is, according to the FAA, we need to go through a five-phase process for approval.

The way it works is, first of all, we need to tell the FAA that we intend to apply for a Part 135 certificate, in this case, for UAS operations. That’s what the FAA calls phase one or the pre-application phase. This phase is really easy. All we need to do is to file what is called a PASI, which is basically a pre-application statement of intent. It’s just a form. It’s just an FAA form, so nothing fancy, where we let the FAA know that we intend to pursue FAA 135 certification for continued operations in the future. So we filled out that form. We provide it to the FAA. Then what that does is it provides the FAA the knowledge of how many people or how much time, how much resources do we have to have, based on the number of operators that want to become 135 registered. Right now at the FAA there are approximately 10 that are undergoing that process. They all started with that form.

Once that form is submitted, then the FAA will go to your site, whatever the operator is, and conduct a meeting. They will conduct a meeting with the operator, and the operator will then basically tell them about their operation. What the FAA does is they outline the process. The process [are] basically the next four phases. After that meeting, what the operator needs to do, and this is where the bulk of the work is, and that’s where companies like PRISM  we basically work with the operator to conduct or to set up or to prepare all these various things that you need to deliver, the things that are needed for the next phase.

Phase two is called the formal application phase. This is where we need to deliver a lot, many documents to the FAA. There are two types of documents. One [are] the application documents, and the other type is the actual manuals. On the application documents, we have things like a statement of compliance, which is a huge document that states, line by line, how we meet or do not meet each and every requirement from Part 135. At that point we also decide which part does not apply. The most common example that is used here, especially by the FAA, are things like the fact that, for manned Part 135 operations, you’re required to have manuals on board. Well, for a UAS, if we have manuals on board, it would probably kill the payload, so that one, that and many others, would then be declared exceptions. Based on the specific type of drone we’re using, based on the specific type of operation we’re using or the configuration of our drone, configuration of our payload, et cetera, the performance of our drone, we will then also apply for exceptions. We do that for operators as well as submitting many other documents.

We need to also submit the rÈsumÈs for people that will be part of the required staff that is the minimum requirement from the FAA. We need to have, at the very least, on the UAS operator side, a director of operations, a director of maintenance. We need to have an accountable executive, which is usually the CEO, and we need to have a safety manager as well. What this means is that we also need to have a safety management system. Most UAS operators are not really aviation companies, and that’s where we help them understand what these requirements are and how to implement things like a safety management system. At the same time, we develop for operators other key documents, in this case, very specific manuals, such as a general operations manual, which describes in great detail how the operation will be conducted; also, another key manual called the general maintenance manual. That manual basically describes how you maintain the aircraft, in this case the unmanned aircraft, to make sure that it remains airworthy.

There are a lot of different documents that have to be submitted, and each and every one of those documents, and certainly the manuals, have to contain all of the requirements that are outlined in the regulation, and there are many, many, many of them. When we talk about the statement of compliance, it’s thousands of lines long, more than 1000, more than 2000 lines long. So it’s a very significant process. That’s where the FAA will basically be a lot more receptive by using one of the five or six certification consultant companies. The FAA has approved a group of five or six certification consultant companies. These are commercial companies  and we are one of them; PRISM is one of them  that are approved by the FAA to conduct these types of processes. The reason they did that is because there were many operators that thought that this would be an easy process, so they would submit the initial application, and then they would try to do the documents themselves, both the application documents as well as the manuals, and they would basically crash and burn because they don’t understand the regulations and how they need to be applied in the documents. That’s why the FAA created this certification consultant category for commercial consulting companies.

The next phase is formal application and is the bulk of the work, because that is when operators need to submit a lot of documents for the FAA. Once the FAA receives these documents, based on their workload, it will take them months, at least six months, to review absolutely everything. What that means is that we’ll come back with differences, recommendations, changes, suggested changes, suggested corrections to all the documents. At that point then we work with the operator to make the changes that need to be made. Keep in mind that everything that we submit in writing needs to reflect 100†percent of what you will do to maintain the UAS during those deliveries, to fly the UAS, so everything you put in writing needs to be exactly what you plan to do when you conduct your deliveries. These are not just documents. These are really the standards by which you will be measured by the FAA later on. That is phase two, formal application.

At that point the FAA moves into what they call phase three, design assessment, which is basically what I just mentioned, taking a look at all the documents and deciding whether or not they are appropriate for Part 135 certification.

After that, they move on to what is called phase four, and this is performance assessment. This is the practical test. What this means is that the FAA will go onsite to wherever you fly, to your typical delivery route, and observe everything that you do. They will compare the way you maintain the drone, the way you fly the drone, the way you deal with issues in your drone of all sorts, like maintenance issues, technical issues, engine-out issues, anything and everything. They will give you scenarios, so that they check whether or not you’re doing everything that you put in writing regarding your operation. That’s like a job interview, basically.

Enrico Schaefer: Yeah.

Guido Fuentes: They evaluate you and your operation the way it will be conducted, the way you will fly your drone and deliver the packages. It’s the practical side of it. Either you pass or you fail, and that’s a really big one. In order for an operator to be ready for that, they have to really, really, really make sure that their people are trained in the procedures that were submitted in writing.

Enrico Schaefer: That’s the difference. Under part 107, it’s all self-regulated, right? You’re out there flying 

Guido Fuentes: Yeah.

Enrico Schaefer:  pursuant to the rules, but when it comes to these types of operations, which have a higher safety risk, they are going to be much more circumspect about compliance with not only preparing the appropriate manuals, documentation, and safety systems, but showing that you can execute on those documents.

Guido Fuentes: Right. That’s what provides not only a bigger organizational, operational, and technical framework, but then that’s what gives the FAA that piece of mind that the safety level that you have, that the risk level that you have meets that acceptable level of safety that you’re looking for. That is the same types processes, procedures, and rules that a big operator, that a manned operator needs to meet today for ondemand flying. Yes, it’s a lot more structured, because, for Part 107, you don’t have the manuals that you need to have. You don’t have to develop a safety management system. You’re restricted to less than 55 pounds. All these things that definitely make the risk much, much lower.

Here, when you become a 135 operator, you not only get the certification, but there is an ongoing surveillance by the FAA regarding every time you fly. That means periodic visits from the FAA, periodic audits from the FAA. Revisions to your manuals and processes and procedures need to go and be approved by the FAA. There is a much higher component of surveillance and control by the FAA when you are 135 compared to 107, which is really, as you said, more of an honor code type thing.

Enrico Schaefer: Right. What we’ve always found with the service providers is a reality check moment when they realize that this is going to take planning, it’s going to take time, it’s going to take resources, financial resources as well. You have to have a budget, a plan, and you have to have adequate money to be able to invest in this process. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Guido Fuentes: Sure.

Enrico Schaefer: What kinds of things should a company be thinking about before they get too far into hiring a company such as PRISM?

Guido Fuentes: Right. Let’s talk about time and resources. Time. A typical UAS operator, and especially the ones that we have worked with, have taken anywhere between six months to two years to achieve Part 135 certification. Now, this depends on two things. One is the ability that you have to devote time and resources to the process, because most UAS operators are already doing something else. So how many people can you devote? How much time can you devote to the process? That will make it go faster or slower. But anyway, between six months and two years is the reasonable amount of time.

Now, a typical amount of time is one year. Now, can you do it in six months? Sure. If you dedicate 100†percent of resources to it, you can. You can. Of course, it also depends on the workload from the FAA. The more successful Part 135 certifications there are, the more operators will want to get the 135. Also, the FAA is learning. The FAA is also learning, like we are, because this is a brand-new way of flying and delivering payloads. The more they learn, the more they standardize the various things that are and are not approved, regarding flying over people or flying beyond line-of-sight or anything like that. In some cases it will become more demanding, and in some cases it will become easier to meet those requirements. So anywhere between six months and two years.

Now, let’s talk about resources. Resources  you have to make sure that you have, first of all, the staff required by the FAA. You have to have a director of operations, a director of maintenance, and a director of safety. You have to make sure you have maintenance staff, maintenance technicians, you have pilots, and you also have anybody else that is required for your operation. Some of these UAS operators, to fly the UAS, they don’t just use one pilot. They use a pilot, but there might be somebody else in front of the computer terminal or the laptop controlling the software that actually directs the drone to do what it does. Some of these other organizations might also need observers, observers along the route or observers in a car following the UAS. Whichever one it is, it requires people. It requires people and it requires resources.

For you to meet all the requirements from 135, by having manuals, you’re basically promising that you will have the required infrastructure for maintenance, the required infrastructure for operations, and all of that requires money. Depending on how big or small your operation is, your costs will vary, but it definitely isn’t a cost-free process initially. As you grow, it will be more effective, since you will be able to use those fixed costs for many more operations and many more drones, and therefore, you will be able to spread those fixed costs among more and more of the operation and revenue operation. But initially, it’s a significant cost. So it depends.

It depends on what you have and what you don’t have. Many operators, probably most operators today, are focused more on research and development. They’re focused more on making sure the drone works, making sure the control system works, making sure you have a better drone, making sure you have a drone that has better payloads, all kinds of things. By doing that, they’re really focused on research and development. In order for you to become a 135 operator, you need to have a separate mindset, and it is the mindset of being an operator and not a drone builder and flyer, but a drone operator.

That mindset requires a separate group of people. For example, one operator we’re working with now  they’re great at building drones and making them better, but guess what? Guess what that is? That is construction. That is research and development. That is assembly. That is production of drones. Our very first piece of advice to them was we need to separate that from actual operations. Operations means pilots. Operations means a director of maintenance. Operations means safety. They should not be involved in anything related to developing a better drone or building the drones or assembling the drones. They need to be separate operations. When you get a 135 certification, you’re basically saying that your drone and your operation is good enough today to operate safely, so any upgrades to your drone are great, of course, but they should happen later. In other words, in order for you to get a 135 certification, you need to freeze the technical and operational state of your drone, at least for one or two or three drones, whichever ones you’re including in the 135 operation request. Freeze those procedures and freeze those configurations for the FAA to approve them.

Enrico Schaefer: Yeah. You have to get your kind of airworthiness underneath you as well on the equipment side and make sure that you’ve got the equipment that, as well, the FAA is going to approve as part of your 135 operation.

Guido Fuentes: Right. A separate process than 135 is to obtain the airworthiness certificate for the drone, and that is managed by a separate group within the FAA. It basically means that you have met all the requirements from the FAA for the drone to be safe to fly. What that means is that you have to obtain a production certificate. You need to obtain an airworthiness certificate. In that regard, you are now in the mode of a builder, of an aircraft or UAS manufacturer. That is a separate process, separate [than] the 135 certification. You also need to conduct that with the FAA.

Enrico Schaefer: Guido Fuentes from Professional Resources in System Management, LLC, PRISM, thank you for being on the show today. If there are companies out there that are looking for the consulting services that PRISM offers, how should they contact you?

Guido Fuentes: Sure. We are PRISM, and you can certainly find us online under www.prism.aero. You can also find us under ARGUS International, our parent company. You’re welcome to contact us. We’ll be happy to assess your operation.

Enrico Schaefer: Great. We’ve been talking Part 135 and drone delivery today. We will see you next time. Drone Law Pro Radio.

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