The Federal Aviation Administration recently indicated it may allow limited commercial drone operations before it finalizes unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) regulations. The FAA cited a provision within the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Act) that authorizes it to approve such operations under an exemption.

By law, UAS must have an appropriate airworthiness certificate to fly commercially. The airworthiness certification process, however, is lengthy, resource-intensive and designed for manned aircraft. Moreover, the FAA has been reluctant to provide airworthiness certificates to UAS.

Section 333 of the Act essentially provides an exemption to the airworthiness certificate requirement. Under Section 333, if the applicant demonstrates a UAS can operate safely in the national airspace system without creating a hazard to other aircraft or people on the ground, the FAA may approve its use without an airworthiness certificate.

This month, at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International convention, the FAA’s UAS integration office promoted Section 333 as a path to certain commercial UAS operations while it completes its rulemaking. Jim Williams, head of the FAA office in charge of UAS integration, stated that companies interested in using UAS for precision agriculture, power line inspection, stack inspection and motion picture filming have already approached the FAA concerning the Section 333 exemption, but none have filed an application. He also noted that the FAA would consider Section 333 requests for other UAS activities.

Williams emphasized, however, that Section 333 offers a narrow path to low-risk UAS operations. He also noted that it only exempts an operator from the statutory aircraft certification requirement. The operator would still need a certified pilot trained to fly the UAS and a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization that would permit the actual UAS operation.

Still, multiple public and private entities that are currently prohibited from flying UAS might benefit from a Section 333 exemption. For example, power, energy, agriculture, chemical and motion picture companies probably have low-risk uses for UAS.

Section 333 might also enable private universities to conduct, study and research UAS operations, activities that have been restricted to public universities. Public universities, whose ability to self-certify UAS is limited to non-commercial uses, might also use Section 333 to incorporate UAS into their degree programs and partner with businesses to conduct research and development.

Although the FAA is still developing criteria for evaluating Section 333 exemption applications, it appears willing to collaborate on them. Also, it recommends that prospective applicants begin to develop a plan and procedures for their UAS operations and assess the extent to which waivers of current regulations are necessary.