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So How Do You Get to Fly a UAS Commercially?

January 14, 2015  - By
The Phantom quadcopter. Photo: Phantom

The Phantom quadcopter. Photo: Phantom

We’ve all been waiting with bated breath for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to release its long-awaited regulations to enable safe operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in United States airspace. Well, probably only a small subset of us actually have been anxiously awaiting these FAA rules, but with the increasing visibility of even small UAS on TV, most of us have probably given these things some passing thought.

If you didn’t already know, the FAA has been mandated by Congress to integrate UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS) by September 30 of this year.

I’ve been following what’s been going on quite intently as far as FAA regulations for UAS. For the most part, the FAA has been making noises that it has not been able to maintain the planned schedule to achieve this objective. The UAS industry — and GNSS is a major component for that industry — has been quite disappointed by the FAA’s progress and has made quite a deal about the delays and lack of concrete results. So, for me, it seemed to be a good sign when the FAA recently started to issue restricted exemptions from its existing rules for regular manned aircraft, which may allow people to legally use UAS, for:

  • TV and movie making (7 exemptions),
  • Construction site monitoring (1 exemption)
  • Precision aerial surveys (3 exemption granted to Trimble and Woopert Inc.)
  • Flare stack inspections on 14 Shell Oil Gulf of Mexico production platforms (1 exemption)
  • Aerial video to augment real-estate listings (1 exemption)
  • Photogrammetry and crop surveying for precision agriculture (1 exemption)

As of January 9, that’s the list, but — given that the FAA has found this way to move forward on an individual basis to allow commercial UAS use — it’s quite likely there may be more. I pulled up these exemptions on the FAA unmanned aircraft systems site, which lists exemptions granted so far and explains the Section 333 regulation under which the FAA has chosen to proceed.

It seems the exemptions are being done now because the overarching regulations to integrate small UAS (sUAS) into routine NAS operations have still not made it out of the FAA barn — even following several years now since it was due to emerge. It’s once again scheduled for release for comment “later this year.” The FAA site goes on to say,

Section 333, “Special Rules for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” provides flexibility for authorizing safe civil operations in the NAS by granting the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether airworthiness certification is required for a UAS to operate in the NAS.

The FAA regulations that govern today’s aircraft are found in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR). There are 68 regulations organized into three volumes. A fourth volume deals with the Department of Transportation, and a fifth volume is focused on NASA.

Three primary regulations govern the airworthiness of an aircraft.

The “Big Three” are:

  1. 14 CFR Part 21 — Certification Procedures for Products and Parts
  2. 14 CFR Part 43 — Maintenance, Preventive Maintenance, Rebuilding, and Alterations
  3. 14 CFR Part 91 — General Operating and Flight Rules

These contain massive volumes of rules and regulations that govern everything from markings on the outside of the air vehicle, when and how often maintenance should be performed and even the parts to be used, all the way up to the qualifications needed by pilots for General Aviation and Commercial Transport aircraft operation.

Exemption No. 11138 has been granted to Realtor Douglas Trudeau of Tierra Antigua Realty in Arizona. Most people have come across real-estate promotional stuff, maybe house-hunted using websites with lots of pictures of houses and sometimes videos, so this might be a good example that most people can relate to for using a UAS.

Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter UAS.

Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter UAS.

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Realtor Douglas Trudeau.

Let’s look at what Trudeau has done to get his exemption and what he needs to do to use his three-pound Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter UAS, equipped with a lightweight video camera, to take real-estate pictures and videos.

First of all, he applied to the FAA unmanned aircraft systems office for an exemption. This involved picking through 14 CFR Part 21 regulations and looking for specific sections that he asked be waived so he could fly his UAV.

He supplied:

  • Supplemental Response for Petition,
  • Phantom Flying Flow Chart V1.0 (Simplified Version), Phantom Quick Start Manual v1.7, Phantom Advanced Manual v.1.4,
  • Phantom 2 Vision+ User Manual
  • Restricted areas map
  • Personal protocols and controls, and
  • Safety/Flight Manual.

The exemption first lays out in detail the regulations from which Trudeau requested relief. Then it summarizes the information he supplied, including:

  • Details of the Phantom 2 Vision+: a three-pound quadcopter with four rotors driven by electric motors, battery powered. Maximum speed, 30 knots.
  • Area of proposed operation is near Tucson for real-estate listing videos.
  • Proposed operation in reasonably safe and in controlled places away from power lines, street lights, airports and actively populated areas, and there will be extensive preflight inspections where safety is of primary importance.
  • Proposed that aircraft certification requirements be waived.
  • Indicated that 2-6 inch markings on the UAV would be impractical.
  • Requested that regular aircraft maintenance be waived in lieu of preflight checks.
  • Indicated that while private pilots are prohibited from commercial operations, he can safely operate a UAV (no passengers or crew), that a pilot’s license will not ensure the skills necessary to fly a UAV, and the risks are much lower. Nevertheless, Trudeau did make an application for a 120-day temporary airman certificate to give him time to get a private pilot’s license.
  • Indicated that he’s already flown lots of practice flights in remote areas in different weather conditions.
  • Propose a safety/flight manual be with the UAS ground station rather than on the UAV.
  • Use of GPS with a barometric sensor rather than a standard aircraft altimeter.
  • That regular aircraft fuel reserve levels don’t apply to a battery-powered UAV.

Trudeau also proposed a number of restrictions on how he would operate the UAV:

  • Operations would be below 300 feet and within 1,000 feet of the controller to maintain direct line of sight and only 3-7 minutes per flight.
  • Land whenever there was low battery power.
  • Use the GPS flight safety feature whereby the UAV hovers and then slowly lands in the event of radio-control link failure.
  • Post pedestrian warning signs and continuously improve his own safety protocols.
  • Inform local airports — if within 5 miles — of estimated flight time, duration, elevation and other pertinent information.
  • Always obtain all necessary permissions prior to operation.
  • Have procedures to abort flights if there are safety breaches or any potential danger.

The FAA posted Trudeau’s application for waivers on the Federal Register asking for comments, and got five responses — two in support and three raising concerns, one of which opposed the idea. The trade associations that responded were the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA), the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), the United States Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association (USHPA) and another group, the Small UAV Coalition.

ALPA felt that UAS operators should be required to have a commercial pilots’ license. NAAA and USHPA had similar concerns about operator licensing. The Small UAV Coalition disagreed on pilot licensing for small UAVs. NAAA had concerns about low-level operations that may conflict with crop-spraying operations.

There were also a number of concerns about how this UAS would be operated and potential safety issues. The FAA agreed with these issues and has added a number of restrictions within the exemption, including the use of a visual observer, that the pilot be a current FAA certificated private pilot, and that a notice-to-airmen (NOTAM) be issued prior to operations.

The Small UAV Coalition supported Trudeau’s petition, suggesting that the FAA apply regulations differently to small UAVs rather than those of air transport/general aviation, rather than include all seven key factors — beyond visual line of sight (VLOS), weight, size, altitude, airspace, geographic area, and proposed technology — and consider Trudeau’s safety protocols, including his posting of warning signs, to enable operations in populated areas.

The Small UAV Coalition proposed that the FAA’s safety evaluation of UAV operations should not hinge on the type of operation (public, commercial, recreational or philanthropic) rather the operational risks and steps to eliminate or reduce risks. The coalition also commended Trudeau for his “Personal Protocols and Controls” document that details how he will contact any airport within 5 miles of proposed UAV operations.

In the end, the FAA granted Exemption No. 11138 with an additional 35 restrictions. Here’s a brief summary of those restrictions:

  • The exemption only applies to Trudeau’s Phantom 2 Vision+ UAS.
  • Indicated airspeed not to exceed 30 knots.
  • Altitude not to exceed 300 feet above ground level (AGL).
  • Operation always within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the Pilot In Command (PIC).
  • There must also be a visual observer (VO), who is in direct contact with the operator.
  • Trudeau has to have all the documentation and paperwork with him during operations, presumably so they can be reviewed by FAA personnel. If he makes any changes, he has to include updates in the paperwork.
  • Prior to flight, he must inspect the UAS to ensure it’s OK for safe flight. Any maintenance or changes to the vehicle must be documented in the aircraft records.
  • Record any alterations or any maintenance, and there must be a recorded test flight.
  • Pre-flight records must be made of inoperable components, items or equipment.
  • The operator must follow the UAS manufacturer’s aircraft/component, maintenance, overhaul, replacement, inspection and life limit requirements.
  • Maintenance, inspection and alterations must be noted in the aircraft records, including total flight hours, description of work accomplished, and the signature of the authorized person returning the UAS to service.
  • The UAS operated must comply with all manufacturer Safety Bulletins.
  • Any corrective action to fix discrepancies found between inspections must be recorded.
  • The operator must have at least a private pilot certificate and at least a current third-class medical certificate, and meet the required flight review requirements in an aircraft in which he’s rated.
  • He has to log 25 hours operating a rotorcraft UAS, and 10 hours with a multirotor UAS, before flying to make any real-estate videos.
  • He has to log 5 hours operating this make of UAS, and make three take-offs and landings in the preceding 90 days.
  • He has to demonstrate he can safely operate the UAS, including making evasive and emergency maneuvers and maintaining appropriate distances from people, vessels, vehicles and structures.
  • The UAS can only be operated during daylight in acceptable visual conditions.
  • The UAS cannot be operated within 5 nautical miles of an airport.
  • The UAS cannot be operated less than 500 feet below or less than 2,000 feet horizontally from a cloud or when visibility is less than 3 miles.
  • If the UAS loses communications or loses GPS signal, it must return to a pre-determined location within the planned operating area and land or be otherwise recovered.
  • The flight must be aborted in the event of unpredicted obstacles or emergencies.
  • A flight cannot be started unless (considering wind and forecast weather conditions) there is enough power to fly and land as intended and still have 30% battery power left.
  • Trudeau has to obtain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) prior to conducting any operations under this grant of exemption. This COA will also require him to request a Notice to Airman (NOTAM) not more than 72 hours in advance, but not less than 48 hours prior to the operation.
  • He has to mark the UAV with a regular aircraft N-Number, which can be as large as practicable.
  • The radio control link has to comply with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requirements.
  • The required documents must be available at the UAS Ground Control Station any time the UAS is operating, and must be made available to the FAA or any law enforcement official upon request.
  • The UA must remain clear and yield the right of way to all manned aviation operations and activities at all times.
  • The UAS may not be operated from any moving device or vehicle.
  • The UAS may not be operated over congested or densely populated areas.
  • Flight operations can only be 500 feet away from any people vessels, vehicles and structures, unless protective barriers are in place. If anyone or thing penetrates this protection zone, operations must be terminated. Property owners must approve operations, and there first has to be a safety assessment to ensure there is no “undue hazard.”
  • Each flight operation must be conducted over private or controlled-access property with the permission of the land owner/controller.
  • Any incident, accident or flight operation that goes outside operational boundaries of the area of the approved COA must be reported to the FAA’s UAS Integration Office within 24 hours. Accidents must be reported to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Otherwise, his operations must comply with all applicable parts of 14 CFR — the full set of requirements for owning and operating a regular aircraft.

Quite a list, admittedly with quite a bit of repetition, but in all, Trudeau probably has his work cut out to cope with getting a private pilot’s license, not operating within 5 miles of an airport (since his area is right next door to one), and not fly over densely populated areas (since most real-estate is in suburbs with people, streets and houses everywhere). These seem to be the major impediments to what he wants to do.

When I talked with him, I found him unfazed by all this, and he is moving down the list, satisfying the requirements — he’s already got a pilot in training who’s done his three take-offs and landings and is accumulating operating hours, with Doug Trudeau the Visual Observer. He has a binder ready to carry around all the documentation, and applying for his first COA is the next step.

Doug Trudeau training with his Phantom 2. Photo: Phantom

Doug Trudeau training with his Phantom 2. Photo: Phantom

Meanwhile, in California, a lawyer named Dana Hobart has been asking some good questions and got a piece published in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, “Recreational Drones are Facing More FAA Headwinds.”

Hobart argues that since 1981, anyone flying a model recreational aircraft has been exempted from FAA regulations. He says that the small consumer drones currently on the market fall within the FAA’s model-aircraft exemption. For these model aircraft, the FAA only encourages users to voluntarily stay away from populated areas and airports, avoid flying near full-scale aircraft, and fly below an altitude of 400 feet. It’s unclear if model aircraft can be flown for money, such as taking videos of real-estate to help sell houses.

But Hobart goes on to stress that recent incidents where UAVs may have tangled with commercial aircraft likely means that the days of unregulated recreational aircraft are coming to a close. Indeed, the NTSB ruled that a drone is an “aircraft” and the FAA has full authority to regulate all aircraft, whether or not it is “manned or unmanned, large or small.”

With a half million drones already sold in the U.S. over the past three years, and many more in the pipeline for purchase at a rapidly increasing rate, its possible that recreational UAS use might outstrip that of commercial “for money” applications.

I’ve also heard in the past that with this volume of vehicles coming into frequent use, the FAA risks losing all control of small UAS (sUAS) unless it quickly publishes regulations. Unfortunately, the FAA continues to delay release of appropriate sUAS rules — delays that are now being counted in years rather than months or weeks — while the urgency of the situation seems to be growing daily.

Hobart gave me something to think about when he compared a motorcycle with a small UAV — in terms of the “limited damage” that either could cause to others and to property. They do seem to be similar in damage-causing capability — in fact, a motorcycle might make pretty big holes in things because it’s pretty heavy and can go pretty fast! In the case of a motorcycle, we allow people to take a two-day intensive course on safety and operation, and then turn them loose on our roads and highways. Before things get totally out of control, something similar for sUAS operators might be in order.

The FAA indeed may be moving in this direction when it began collaborating with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) and the Small UAV Coalition, who represent the vast majority of UAS users and manufacturers, on the “Know Before You Fly” UAS Safety Campaign. These organizations hope that the campaign will help ensure the safety of the skies for all aircraft, both manned and unmanned. It would be good to see a formal UAS operator qualification program come out of this.

So if you bought your kids a radio-controlled helicopter for Christmas and have been out in the backyard flying it — look out! It’s now a recreational drone and woe betide you if it had a camera and you were taking video of your house. You may need an Exemption if you give your kids an allowance and encourage them to gain skills flying their toy.

Probably not a good example, really, but this particular Exemption does seem to have gone a little over the top.

Tony Murfin,
GNSS Aerospace

This article is tagged with , , , and posted in Opinions, UAV/UGV

About the Author:


Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).

7 Comments on "So How Do You Get to Fly a UAS Commercially?"

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  1. Brian m says:

    Always had the greatest respect for the FAA, but they do seem to have totally lost the plot with UAV’s

  2. Thank you Tony. My approach is my clients deserve the best. If I have to go that extra mile and have to meet all these requirements, my clients deserve the best they can get and legally. Attitude creates altitude, and I plan to soar.

    • joe says:

      I agree your clients to deserve the best but in all practicality all these completely ridiculous regulations will be a distraction to the actual job and you will likely be so concerned with staying within the confines put upon you by the FAA that your flights will be less safe than and attract much more attention than they would if you would just have driven up pulled out your multirotor got the shots you needed and left.

      I find this deeply troubling. Moreover none of this is actually law. there il are simply makeing up rules without going through proper channels or applying old unrelated rules.

      Its as if all the rules of long haul truck drivers should apply to bicycle messengers and people who use roller skates to get to work.

  3. Chas W. says:

    If every potential commercial multirotor operator was forced to comply with a similar list of operating restrictions, it would do several things:

    1. It would completely overwhelm the FAA’s Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) system. There would be so many of them issued that they would become meaningless, and no pilot would take the time to read them all, thereby negating their effectiveness.

    2. The FAA, already slow to process COAs and waivers, would grind to an administrative halt. They simply do not have the manpower to absorb thousands of requests for new airframe licenses, waivers, registrations, and pilot’s certificates. Not all at once, anyway. Prepare for massive delays.

    Good luck to all of us. We’re going to need it.