Section 333 Exemptions
Until recently, commercial operators of Unmanned Aerial Systems, more commonly called “drones,” have been forced to go through a time-consuming exemption process in order to gain the necessary FAA approvals before operating their drones commercially.
In response to public and industry pressure for more flexibility, the FAA has started easing the restrictions on commercial drone operators, and it has never been easier to operate a drone commercially in US airspace.
The first of these new policies is a “summary grant” process that has already greatly accelerated the often time-consuming Section 333 exemption process. Previously, the agency had been forced to examine every prospective commercial drone operation individually under Section 333 of the 2012 FAA reauthorization law in order to ensure the safe integration of drones into the National Airspace System. The summary grant process now allows the FAA to use past Section 333 petitions as precedent for future petitions, so that the agency will not need to repeat its analysis for those new petitions that are substantially similar to previous examples.
In order to qualify for a summary grant, a drone operator will have to meet certain criteria. First, they will have to show they are going to fly their drone for a purpose that has been previously approved by the FAA. Based on its experiences reviewing past petitions, the FAA has determined that drone operations typically fall within either, (1) aerial data collection, or (2) closed-set motion picture or television productions, and thus going forward operators wishing to conduct these kinds of operations will benefit from this new expedited exemption process. Second, in order to qualify for a summary grant, drone operators will have to conduct their operations using a drone that has already been approved by the FAA and agree to abide by the operational limitations set under previous petitions. Finally, drone operators will qualify for a summary grant as long as their supporting operational materials include the various provisions the FAA has indicated are necessary for responsible, safe drone operations. Thus, as long as a prospective commercial drone operator intends to operate within these limits, the processing time for their Section 333 petition will be greatly reduced. However, those operations that fall outside of these categories and operational restrictions will continue to have to go through a full Section 333 analysis.
Under the second of these new policies, the FAA will now grant a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (“COA”) to any drone operator that has obtained the requisite Section 333 exemption and that operates their drone within certain limits. In order to qualify for this “blanket” COA, Section 333-exempted drone operators will be required to operate their drones at or below 200 feet, during daytime Visual Flight Rules (“VFR”) conditions, within visual line of sight (“VLOS”) of the operator, and maintain certain specified distances away from airports or heliports (for example, 5 nautical miles from an airport having an operational control tower). Also, the new blanket COA only applies to drones that weigh less than 55 pounds.
Previously, in addition to the required Section 333 exemption, the FAA had required each drone operator to receive a separate, individual COA for a particular “block” of airspace for each individual flight, a process that tended to be very time consuming. The new blanket COA is not limited geographically or to any one particular flight. Instead, the blanket COA now allows for drone flights anywhere in the country except within certain restricted airspace and around airports and heliports as mentioned above. However, anyone still wanting to operate a drone outside of these new blanket parameters will still be required to obtain a separate COA for each flight.
The third major change recently made to the Section 333 and COA exemption process is a relaxing of the requirements for becoming licensed as a commercial drone operator. Previously, the FAA had required commercial drone operators to hold at least a private pilot certificate. Under the new policy, the FAA will now also allow drone flights under Section 333 exemptions by operators who hold either a recreational or sport pilot certificate, both of which are easier to obtain, and thus less costly, than a private pilot certificate.
Similarly, the FAA also relaxed the medical requirements for commercial drone operators. Where before the FAA had required at a minimum a third class medical certificate, Section 333-exepmted commercial drone operators will now only need a valid driver’s license to satisfy the medical requirement. This opens the door for many drone operators who, for one reason or another, would not be able to obtain a third class medical certificate but whose health would not affect their ability to safely operate a drone within the parameters set by the FAA.
While the industry eagerly awaits the FAA’s pending drone regulations, these new policies have already accelerated what was a time-consuming process and will help ease the transition to a time when drone operations are a routine fixture of the U.S. National Airspace System.
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