On March 29, 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made a major change in policy that further opens the skies to operators of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), but also imposes new administrative reporting burdens. Under prior policy, operators could fly under the Blanket Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) so long as they remained at or below 200'. If the operator wanted to fly between 200' and 400', then he or she had to apply for an additional COA, which introduced substantial delays before flying.

The FAA has determined that this restriction is too limiting, and has raised the altitude of the Blanket COA to 400', the same altitude restriction contained in the Section 333 Exemption. The FAA believes that by making this change, it will eliminate between 30 and 40 percent of all of the COA requests that it has to process on a daily basis. The FAA did not, however, alter any of the set-off distances from airports and helipads, and a COA issued by the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) is still necessary for flights in these areas.

Operators should also be aware that the FAA has also made a substantial change to the accident and incident reporting requirements contained in the Blanket COA. The 200' Blanket COA required six different types of malfunctions to be reported to the FAA, as well as any lost link events. The 400' Blanket COA has a new section that has extensive additional incident, accident and mishap reporting requirements. Within 24 hours, an operator is now required to report accidents where there is:

  1. Fatal injury, where the operation of a UAS results in a death occurring within 30 days of the accident/mishap
  2. Serious injury, where the operation of a UAS:
    1. Results in hospitalization for more than 48 hours, commencing within seven days from the date the injury was received;
    2. Results in a fracture of any bone (except simple fractures of fingers, toes or nose);
    3. Causes severe hemorrhages, nerve, muscle or tendon damage;
    4. Involves any internal organ; or
    5. Involves second- or third-degree burns, or any burns affecting more than five percent of the body surface
  3. Total unmanned aircraft loss
  4. Substantial damage to the unmanned aircraft system where there is damage to the airframe, power plant or onboard systems that must be repaired prior to further flight
  5. Damage to property, other than the unmanned aircraft 

Similarly, the operator is required to report any incident where there is:

  1. A malfunction or failure of the unmanned aircraft’s onboard flight control system (including navigation)
  2. A malfunction or failure of ground control station flight control hardware or software (other than loss of control link)
  3. A power plant failure or malfunction
  4. An in-flight fire
  5. An aircraft collision involving another aircraft
  6. Any in-flight failure of the unmanned aircraft’s electrical system requiring use of alternate or emergency power to complete the flight
  7. A deviation from any provision contained in the COA
  8. A deviation from an air traffic control clearance and/or Letter(s) of Agreement/Procedures
  9. A lost control link event resulting in:
    1. Fly-away, or
    2. Execution of a pre-planned/unplanned lost link procedure

The COA requires an initial report as well as follow-on reports that must be made after the completion of a safety investigation. The COA also reminds operators that many of these mishaps are also events that must be reported to the National Transportation Safety Board under 49 CFR Part 830.