FAA announces major change to UAS approval process

By UAS Magazine Staff | March 24, 2015

The approval process required for commercially-focused unmanned aircraft systems companies looking to operate in the U.S. airspace just got quicker thanks to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA has unveiled a change to its regulatory exemption and authorization system that it believes will “bridge the gap between the past process, which evaluated every UAS operation individually,” with a new system designed for “future operations.”

Through the new policy, the FAA will grant a certificate of waiver or authorization for all flights at or below 200 feet to any UAS operator that has already received a Section 333 exemption. The COA allows the exempt UAS operator to fly anywhere in the U.S. without the need to acquire a COA for every flight—a major change from the previous approach. As the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International explained in a release on the announcement, a UAS firm inspecting roofs may inspect multiple roofs over multiple days as long at the operator provides the appropriate NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) without acquiring a COA for each inspection.

The blanket COA, as the FAA refers to it, will be available for all flights that not only fly at or below 200 feet, but also weigh less than 55 pounds, operate during daytime Visual Flight Rules conditions and within visual-line-of-sight of the pilots, and, stay at predetermined distances from airports or heliports.

According to the FAA, under the previous approach, an operator had to apply for a particular block of airspace. “The agency expects the new policy will allow companies and individuals who want to use UAS within these limitations to start flying much more quickly than before,” the FAA said.

“This seems like a good response to something that was developing into a problematic process,” Michael Drobac, executive director of the sUAV coalition, said. SUAV Coalitions is an industry group that represents several major UAV manufacturers and potential users. Drobac said in some cases, section 333 exempt UAV firms were still struggling to obtain COAs  to operate. Through the FAA’s approach to allowing commercial UAV operations in the U.S., a company must first apply for and obtain an exemption. With the exemption, the firm can then work to acquire a regionally specific COA for a specific project. “Getting an exemption doesn’t mean you can operate, it just means you are available to seek a COA,” he explained.

Although Drobac was pleased with the FAA’s decision to streamline part of the COA process, he voiced confusion on the limit of UAVs to fly at or below 200 feet. The previously released FAA Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which is currently open for public comment, used 400 feet at the limit for sUAV flight heights.

Michael Sievers, a counsel at Hunton & Williams, spoke with UAS Magazine regarding the recent FAA announcement to “streamline UAS COAs for Section 333,” and says it’s a fairly straight-forward policy announcement. It appears to be a little bit permissive from the altitude perspective, but appears to be more permissive in terms of the airspace, he said.

“I see that as a goal to reduce the backlog or what they expect to be the backlog of COAs and at the same time, provide those who are granted 333 exemptions the ability to fly in more places around the country without having to apply individually for COAs in every region that they want to fly,” said Sievers.

While this announcement focused on the associated COAs for Section 333, it could be a potential segue to eventually streamline the Section 333 exemption process.

“It’s usually pursued somewhat in tandem, but it certainly could just be pursued individually after the fact,” said Sievers. “I think this announcement is just trying to universalize things at a pretty low altitude and low-risk airspace.”

Streamlining the Exemption Process

Both Drobac and Sievers are looking for the FAA to move onto the section 333 exemption processes. There are currently 60-plus companies that have received exemptions out of more than 600. “People realize we are lagging behind other countries in the world,” Drobac said.

Mariam Gilligan, associate administrator for aviation safety at FAA, addressed the possibility of expediting the section 333 approval process the same day the FAA released its COA policy change. Gilligan was part of an UAS group that provided testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. When asked how the FAA can speed up the exemption process, Gilligan said the FAA is working on a process they call a summary grant. “We are trying to link new applications with decisions we have already made to streamline the process,” she said. The idea, she explained is to compare new applications to previously approved applications for similarities. When, or if, similarities exist, approvals could be granted much faster.

The FAA is also working to implement blanket geographic COA approval authority to each of the six UAS test sites. Through the process, individuals experienced in aviation would be designated by the FAA to issue experimental COAs that would allow for flights at the test sites only. The idea is to enhance the test sites by giving COA granting authority to others than the FAA’s main UAS team. “We can’t get data we need if we don’t have people operating at the test sites,” she said.

On the topic of someday allowing UAVs to operate beyond the visual line of sight, or above crowded areas, Gilligan said the FAA is working to determine answers to each. To date, no exemptions or COAs have been granted for commercial operations near crowded areas because, according to Gilligan, there are no standards for UAV platforms in existence yet that can ensure or define the necessary level of safety.

Operators or UAV companies that have received or applied for a section 333 exemption and wish to fly above 200 feet still need to apply on an individual project basis for COAs. 

Alison Duquette, spokesperson for the FAA, told UAS Magazine that the 200 foot limit was based on guidelines in FAA's air traffic organizations for obstruction clearance.