In an effort to simplify its process of granting commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) authorizations, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released what it calls a blanket policy to cover entities that already hold Section 333 exemptions. These entities, instead of going through the current process of applying for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), will now be automatically given a COA to fly under certain conditions. And, in a change of events – although still yet unannounced by the agency – the FAA is lifting the requirement for operators to possess both a medical certificate and private pilot license (PPL).
Although the FAA is maintaining – as proposed in its small UAV rules – that flights must be within the visual line of sight (VLOS) of the operator and can take place only in daylight, the agency is requiring that operations must not reach over 200 feet in altitude. The VLOS and daytime restrictions come as no surprise to Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition and senior policy advisor at law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. However, he is puzzled by the 200-feet limit.
“It’s unclear to me as to how and why they’re justifying a lower level of altitude,” Drobac tells Unmanned Aerial Online. The current standard for operations is 400 feet in altitude, and the FAA upped the ante to 500 in its notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM).
Gretchen West, vice president of business development and regulatory affairs at DroneDeploy, is also unsure of the justification but notes the FAA’s concern for “general aviation” (i.e., the shared space of manned and unmanned aircraft) as a possible reason for the 200-feet limit. Although there exist “quite a few applications” that meet this altitude requirement, West says, “400 would be better.”
These applications include, she explains, some types of real estate photography, farming and cinematography. The National Association of Realtors (NAR), indeed, sees the new policy as a “positive step” for real estate agents and other exemption holders and is glad the FAA is “working to be more flexible with users,” says Chris Polychron, president of the association.
“Realtors are excited about the potential to use UAS technology to take photographs and video footage of property listings for residential, commercial, and land sales or leases,” he says.
But for many companies – such as utilities and infrastructure inspectors – that need to operate above 200 feet, the limit may be “problematic,” according to Drobac.
Jason Forte, vice president of business development at Sky-Futures, believes the blanket COA will “absolutely benefit” his company, a provider of UAV inspections for oil and gas infrastructure. Sky-Futures, which conducts business globally and is also a member of the Small UAV Coalition, recently received a Section 333 exemption for U.S. operations.
“Two-hundred feet allows us to accomplish most work on land and quite a bit offshore, as well,” he explains. “However, a good portion of our business is offshore flare-tip inspections. We will need a specific COA for those jobs, as we will have to operate above 200 feet.”
But because the FAA should now receive fewer COA requests, he says, the agency will have more time to process and approve the ones that it does receive.
NAR’s Polychron points out that the new policy also “makes it easier for individuals to practice operating their UAS,” which, in turn, he says, “promotes the safe use of the technology.”
Concerning other applications that require UAV flights above 200 feet, Drobac explains that the FAA itself has noted that, for instance, cell-tower inspections could be conducted via UAVs, eliminating the risk of worker injuries and fatalities. It’s strange, then, that the FAA did not address a safety issue such as that through its blanket-policy rules, he says.
However, he notes the importance of looking at the new policy “not in terms of good or bad” but with a realization that the FAA is “trying very hard to make improvements” for the industry. The agency, however, is wary of opening up the space too wide and, thus, bringing forth air-traffic congestion and subsequent safety risks.
While the FAA makes these improvements and alterations to policy, petitions for Section 333 exemptions continue to pour in. West says the blanket policy will “absolutely” draw more applicants. She references rapid growth over the past two months: Before the mid-February NPRM, there were around 300 requests from commercial entities in the FAA’s queue. Now, nearly two months later, there are approximately 700.
Although the new blanket policy will bring forth an automatic COA for those who do have an exemption, it will not expedite the process of receiving the exemption in the first place. “The problem is that you need an exemption before you can even become a participant in this,” Drobac explains. “And the exemptions are not easy to get.
“That’s still going to take time,” he says. “The number of petitions for exemptions that are coming in far exceeds the rate at which they’re approving them.”
Also, the new policy grants a COA only to the aircraft for which the company received approval in its exemption. If you want to change devices, “You’re back to the drawing board” – you must go back to the FAA to receive another exemption, notes Drobac.
And, he adds, “Oftentimes, they’ll get approval for a UAV they’re no longer using” – such is the case with Amazon. While the company waited for an authorization to test its delivery-by-UAV device in the U.S., it developed a new aircraft and is no longer planning to use the one that received the experimental airworthiness certificate.
“While I’m pleased that the FAA is trying hard to make some movement in the right direction, the problem is that it’s divorced from technology; it’s divorced from the industry,” says Drobac, who explains that although the agency is not approving commercial operations as rapidly as UAV technology is advancing, he “appreciates the complexity of what the FAA is doing.”
Part of the reason he feels the FAA is making headway is that it is collaborating with and being more responsive to the industry in a way that has not been seen before.
“The FAA is definitely trying to make efforts to move forward and be more progressive,” says Drobac.
West says that in a recent FAA meeting with the Small UAV Coalition, of which DroneDeploy is a member, the FAA mentioned that it is looking into a risk-based approach for commercial UAV operations. However, she notes that how the agency will go about it is speculative: e.g., how the aircraft will be categorized, or how similar or different the rules will be to those of other countries.
Drobac also confirms that the FAA is “working on something related to a risk-based approach.”
“I think we’re going to hear from the FAA soon,” he says. “I think this is the beginning of many announcements.”
Although the FAA has not announced it in a formal change, the Small UAV Coalition mentioned in a release that the agency has, in fact, made another policy revision: lifting the PPL requirement as a part of the approvals it granted last week. These commercial entities can, instead, possess a recreational or sport pilot certificate.
Greg Walden, senior counsel at Akin Gump, confirms with UAO that, going forward, the FAA will enact this change on all future exemptions.
“The FAA will accept a recreational or sport pilot certificate and will no longer accept only a private pilot certificate and higher,” he says, adding that the agency has proposed an aeronautical knowledge test “to be the new certification regime for UAS pilots/operators.”
Also, Walden says, instead of the current requirement for operators to have medical certification, the FAA will be accepting U.S. driver licenses.
For Forte, permanently eliminating the PPL requirement would allow Sky-Futures to build upon its U.S. team. He explains that since the company’s Section 333 exemption announcement, 20 “very qualified and motivated UAS operators” have submitted resumes for jobs; but because they do not have a PPL, they must be turned down.
However, he notes the significant progress the FAA has made in the past six months alone, with the new blanket policy being a “big step forward.”
And during the next 16 to 24 months – when the FAA is said to finalize the rules – expect to see some more changes, says Drobac. “This will not be how the industry rests for the next 16 to 24 months. There’s no chance.”
Following the lift of the PPL and medical certificate requirements, Drobac said in a release from the Small UAV Coalition that although “more must be done,” these steps are a “welcome development” and that the agency “has taken big steps toward greater efficiency and transparency.”
“I know that the FAA is going to get this right,” he tells UAO. “I’m confident they will.”