FAA announces changes to UAS altitude limits and registration

By Patrick C. Miller | March 31, 2016

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) decision allowing approved commercial operators to fly at a blanket altitude of 400 feet should speed up the exemption process, according to a Florida UAS attorney.

Jonathan Rupprecht, a commercial pilot, flight instructor author on UAS law and an attorney with Rupprecht Law in West Palm Beach, said that raising the ceiling from 200 to 400 feet—combined with the FAA’s list of 1,120 pre-approved UAS released earlier this month—should substantially ease the agency’s burden.

“It should dramatically decrease the number of exemptions because a large majority of them were for adding aircraft,” Rupprecht said. “The only amendments you’ll need to do now are for brand new types of operations. Now, 80 to 90 percent of the need for amendments are wiped out.”

The FAA this week announced that after a comprehensive risk analysis, it would allow the ceiling of operations for authorized Section 333 exemption holders and government aircraft operators to be raised from 200 feet to 400 feet. There are exceptions for restricted airspace and other areas, such as major cities, where the agency prohibits UAS operations.

“This is another milestone in our effort to change the traditional speed of government,” said Michael Huerta, FAA administrator. “Expanding the authorized airspace for these operations means government and industry can carry out unmanned aircraft missions more quickly and with less red tape.”

The FAA also announced this week that owners of small UAS used for commercial, public and other non-model aircraft operations will be able to use its new, streamlined, web-based registration process. The agency said the new process will significantly speed up registration for a $5, the same amount model aircraft owners pay.

Under the new blanket certificate of authorization (COA), the FAA will permit flights at or below 400 feet for operators with Section 333 exemptions and aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds and for government UAS operations. Operators must fly under daytime visual flight rules, keep the UAS within visual line of sight of the pilot and stay specified distances away from airports or heliports.

Rupprecht, who wrote an analysis of the FAA’s new blanket COA, said the new measures are welcome, but he added that those using small UAS for videography and cinematography in the TV and movie industries should be aware of a key change. Language noting which UAS operators have FAA approval for filming on closed sets has been eliminated, he noted.

“There is no gatekeeping function now,” Rupprecht explained. “Anybody who gets a Section 333 can say they do TV closed-set filming.”

 Previously, it wasn’t difficult to determine if the FAA had approved a commercial UAS operator to work on closed sets.

“The big benefit before was that people could screen the 333 operators and say, ‘You’re not approved for closed sets, so we’re not hiring you,” Rupprecht said. “I see this change as being worse for the TV and Hollywood filming industry because there are a lot of poser and illegal operators who are sub-professional. They’ll be picking up a lot more work now because that gatekeeping function was removed.”

He foresees the need for third-party auditors to help those in the movie and TV industry select qualified UAS videographers and cinematographers.

“How do you separate the wheat from the chaff when a lot of it looks the same to the untrained eye?” he asked.


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