FAA makes progress accommodating commercial UAS operations

April 22, 2016  - By
The sensefly eXom UAV in flight.

The sensefly eXom UAV in flight.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took a major step forward in expanding commercial UAS/UAV operations in the U.S. airspace. It’s chief said April 19 that the FAA is preparing to take another major step forward in further opening up commercial UAS/UAV operations by eliminating the need for a 333 Exemption for operating small UAS/UAV.

On March 29, the FAA announced it was doubling the altitude for blanket nationwide CoAs (Certificates of Waiver or Authorization) to 400 feet above ground level (AGL). The FAA has typically issued a blanket nationwide CoA with each 333 Exemption it has granted.

Before the announcement, the maximum altitude allowed for commercial operations under the blanket CoA was 200 feet AGL. Now, it is 400 feet AGL. At the stroke of a pen, the 3,000+ 333 Exemption holders with blanket CoAs are now authorized to fly to 400 feet. This is significant because UAS operators can now fly higher and cover more area more efficiently, and still meet the precision and accuracy requirements of most clients.

Another announcement, perhaps even more important, was made by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who spoke at the 2016 FAA UAS Symposium held April 19-20 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Huerta announced that the FAA is close to finalizing the FAA rules for small UAS.

“In late spring we plan to finalize our small UAS rule to eliminate the need for most 333 exemptions,” Huerta said. He was referring to the Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that was announced Feb. 15, 2015, and opened for public comment through April 24, 2015. There were 4,650 public comments made. You can read the comments about the proposed rule here.

The proposed small UAS rule differs significantly from the current FAA requirements for operating UAS in the United States for commercial purposes. One of the major differences is that there will be a “UAS operator’s certificate” created so that commercial UAS pilots will no longer be required to have a FAA Pilot Certificate. Currently, the FAA requires commercial UAS pilots to have at least an FAA Sport Pilot certificate, which requires a substantial investment in money and time to achieve.

To summarize, the general proposed small UAS rules are:

UAS pilot

  • Must be at least 17 years old.
  • Must pass an aeronautical test at FAA-approved testing center, and renewed every 24 months.
  • Must be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
  • Must obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a small UAS rating

UAS operation

  • UASmust weigh less than 55 pounds.
  • Pilot in Command or Visual Observer must maintain visual line of sight (VLOS).
  • Can’t operate over people who are not part of the UAS operation.
  • Daylight operations only.
  • Yield to manned aircraft.
  • May use Visual Observer (VO), but not required.
  • First-person view camera cannot satisfy “see-and-avoid” requirement but can be used as long as requirement is satisfied in other ways.
  • Maximum airspeed of 100 mph.
  • Maximum altitude of 500 feet AGL (above ground level).
  • Minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from control station.
  • Can’t operate more than one UAS at a time.
  • No careless or reckless operations.
  • Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are allowed with the required ATC permission.
  • Operations in Class G airspace are allowed without ATC permission.

With these rules, neither a 333 Exemption nor a CoA is required, which would significantly ease the requirements for a surveying or geospatial company to begin offering UAS services.


The DJI Phantom 4 UAV.

In addition, the small UAS rule includes a framework to adapt future rules such as Micro UAS (0.55 pounds and under) rules that are being actively discussed within the FAA as well as a discussion about commercial operation of UAS over people.

In the meantime, consumer UAS are becoming more powerful with each new product introduction. DJI, the world’s largest UAS manufacturer (by far) introduced the Phantom 4. It’s a huge step forward due to one new feature: automatic collision avoidance. This feature will help operators avoid trees, buildings and potentially other UAS. I’m pretty sure this feature will eventually be included in all commercial UAS.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich demonstrated the broad capabilities UAV technology during his keynote presentation at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show Jan. 5, in Las Vegas. Krzanich showcased the Yuneec Typhoon H with Intel RealSense Technology. (Photo: Intel)

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich gives his keynote presentation at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show Jan. 5, in Las Vegas, where he also announced the acquisition of Ascending Technologies for drone collision avoidance. (Photo: Intel)

Automatic collision avoidance is such a hot subject that in January, Intel acquired Ascending Technologies, a UAS manufacturer that has incorporated automatic sense and avoid technology in their UAS. According to the announcement, Intel sees “incredible opportunity for innovation across a multitude of industries. As a result, Intel is positioning itself at the forefront of this opportunity to increasingly integrate the computing, communications, sensor and cloud technology required to make drones smarter and more connected.”

Thanks, and see you next month.

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About the Author: Eric Gakstatter

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as consulted with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributor to GPS World magazine, serving as editor of the monthly Survey Scene newsletter until 2015, and as editor of Geospatial Solutions monthly newsletter for GPS World's sister site Geospatial Solutions, which focuses on GIS and geospatial technologies.