By the end of 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had approved less than 15 Section 333 exemptions authorizing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations. Roughly three months later, that number has jumped to over 130 Section 333 exemptions approved. The surge in approvals can be attributed to recent changes in the FAA’s approval process as well as increasing pressure from the White House and industry to speed up UAS integration. A few of the recent changes implemented by the FAA include introduction of a “blanket” COA, reliance on a “summary grant” process, and dialing back of certain prerequisites to approval.  

Summary Grant Process

On April 9, 2015, the FAA announced that it would expedite the Section 333 exemption process by issuing “summary grants.” Under the summary grant process, the FAA looks to see if a new petition request is similar to a previously approved petition request. If the new request is similar to an already approved Section 333 petition, the FAA will rely on its prior analysis and issue a summary grant. The FAA has indicated that most of the Section 333 petitions that it has received are either for film and television production or for the collection of aerial data and that future similar petitions will be handled via the summary grant process. The FAA will still perform a detailed analysis for unique Section 333 petitions. Unique Section 333 petitions will also be subject to public comment.

“Blanket” COA

In the past, once the FAA granted a Section 333 Exemption, the exemption holder would also have to file for a separate Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to fly the UAS in a particular block of airspace. The COA approval process can take 60-days.   To cut down on that time, the FAA announced in March that companies with current Section 333 approvals and all future such approvals would be covered by a “blanket” Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) as long as operations were at or below 200 feet.

The “blanket” COA applies to any UAS operator that has been granted a Section 333 exemption for aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds, that operate below 200 feet, during daytime Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions, within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the pilots, and that stay certain distances away from airports or heliports. UAS operations outside of these parameters still require the standard COA.

Other Changes to Streamline Approvals

The FAA has also modified other pieces of the Section 333 approval process to reduce the barriers to approval.

For most Section 333 approvals to date, the FAA required operators to have at least a private pilot certificate. The FAA has since modified this requirement and will approve operations by people who hold a recreational or sport pilot certificate.   Recreational and sport pilot certificates are generally easier to obtain than a private pilot certificate.

Previously, the FAA required UAS operators to have a third class medical certificate. The FAA has eliminated that requirement. Instead, an operator will only need a valid driver’s license to satisfy the medical requirement.

The FAA’s Proposed Rule for Small UAS

The Section 333 exemption process is what aspiring UAS operators have to work with currently. However, the FAA has proposed a new regulatory regime for small UAS. In February 2015, the FAA published its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking focused on the Operation and Certification of small UAS within the United States.

Under the NPRM, small UAS are defined as unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds. Under the contemplated proposal, the FAA would add a new Part 107 to Title 14, which would prescribe “rules governing the registration, airman certification, and operation of civil small UAS within the United States.” Some of the key components of that proposal are as follows:

  • FAA airworthiness certification not required;
  • Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs.;
  • Operations must be within visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only;
  • No operations over any persons not directly involved in the operation;
  • No night-time operations;
  • A first-person view camera cannot satisfy “see-and-avoid” requirement;
  • Maximum airspeed of 100 mph (87 knots); and
  • Operators are required to pass aeronautical knowledge test.

The FAA is accepting comments on its proposed small UAS rule through April 24, 2015.