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Monday, March 23, 2015

Commercial UAS Approvals Continue as Industry Waits on Final Regulations

Woodrow Bellamy III 

[Avionics Today 03-23-2015] The FAA has granted 48 total petitions giving operators approval to fly Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) commercially. Recent developments, including an approval for Amazon to begin flying its Prime Air UAS experimentally, reflect the agency's commitment to approve commercial UAS operations while the industry awaits a final set of regulations for integrating unmanned aircraft into civil airspace. 
The Cinecopter UAS that Picture Factory Inc. will be using for aerial filming/photography. Photo: Picture Factory Inc.
Operators that have gone through the process of obtaining a Section 333 approval have found the FAA to be very committed to approving their operation. Clint Stevens, executive director and co-founder of Blue-Chip UAS, told Avionics Magazine the application process was made easy by the FAA's UAS Integration office. This department authorized Stevens’ company to operate a UAS within 5 nautical miles of any airport or airfield inside Class E airspace with an approved Certificate of Authorization (COA). 
"Items the FAA is looking for when submitting a Section 333 exemption are, the [Code of Federal Regulations] CFRs are you requesting exemption from, why and how is there an equal level of safety in your operations; what unmanned aircraft system (UAS) you are requesting to utilize, along with the operations and maintenance manuals for those aircraft; and any additional supporting documents to further justify your request. Their goal is to determine whether your operations will provide an equivalent or higher level of safety when comparing the UAS operation to manned aircraft operations for the same application. They will look at what type of aircraft you are wishing to utilize, whether it be a fixed wing or rotor-wing platform, your training plans and documentation and your operational procedures and flight documentation." said Stevens. "The whole idea behind the 333 exemption is to provide a phased approach for commercial operations to begin the UAS integration process as safely and quickly as possible as to not place any undue safety hazards within the national airspace or to the general population on the ground. They wish to accomplish this by ensuring the guidelines imposed on UAS operations match or exceed the applied safety procedures currently performed by manned aircraft relative to the operation being conducted."
Blue-Chip UAS will be employing the Sensurion Magpie UAS equipped with communications software to collect data from ground-based sensors which are utilized in the collection of sub surface seismic activity in the search for oil and gas reservoirs. The Magpie will fly over and communicate with the sensors to ensure they are working properly and efficiently. Sensurion's Magpie UAS received a Special Airworthiness Certificate (SAC) from the FAA at the Nevada UAS test range in collaboration with the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems in December of 2014.
Stevens himself wrote the application and filed the petition to acquire a Section 333 exemption from the FAA, and mentioned that the FAA granted the approval within four months. However, most operators use law firms to file the petition, which includes requirements for a flight operations manual, maintenance and inspection manual, a description of the Radio Frequency (RF) spectrum used for control of the UAS among other qualifications. Paul Fraidenburgh, a lawyer in the aviation and aerospace practice group for Buchalter Nemer, told Avionics Magazine that a recently filed a petition on behalf of photography company Picture Factory, won what he calls a "landmark decision" for production companies using UAS for aerial filming and photography.
"What was significant about the Picture Factory exemption was that this was not something where it was backed by some sort of large studio in Los Angeles or the [Motion Picture Association of America] MPAA," said Fraidenburgh, who has gained a national reputation for helping operators obtain Section 333 approvals. "It was a great success for the Midwest and Picture Factory and it’s a success for the smaller production companies that are learning to use this technology to compete with the larger companies. Previously, the FAA was sort of holding these filmmaking activities to only scripted filming. What was significant about this exemption was this does not contain that limitation. So, that opens the doors for some very interesting work." 
Fraidenburgh also has an interesting perspective on the FAA's recently issued Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for commercial UAS operations. He estimates that the official rules could take anywhere between 18 to 36 months to come out, and leading up to the final release of those regulations, the Section 333 approval process becomes even more relevant than it was before the NPRM came out.

"Section 333 remains the holy grail for filmmakers, farmers, flare stack inspectors — anyone who wants to use drones in the U.S. airspace for the foreseeable future," said Fraidenburgh. "We now have a time period where, for this limited period of time, you can go through this process and it’s no longer this huge barrier to entry. Usually what you’ll see is to get a Section 333 granted, it typically was granted 140 days from the day that it was filed. If you look at some of the timelines, that’s a great turnaround. There are now firms out there that are offering these services in a way that is accessible and cost effective for smaller groups and you don’t have to be backed by the MPAA to get one granted; that’s sort of a shift." 

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