Launching a commercial operation in a new (and highly regulated) market requires calculated choices about business goals, the regulatory environment, the competitive landscape, and timing.

For the past four years, the FAA has required commercial drone operators in the United States to have a 333 Exemption. This has been a major regulatory hurdle for early adopters and business innovators.

But, the FAA is expected to finalize formal rules for commercial UAVs in late spring. Titled Part 107, the new rules are expected to lower the barrier to entry for new commercial drone programs.

So, if you are on the verge of launching a commercial drone operation today, you have a few choices:

  1. Operate without permission from the FAA
  2. Apply for a 333 Exemption from the FAA
  3. Wait for the FAA to finalize formal rules (Part 107)

The FAA Says Part 107 Will Be Finalized by Late Spring

Recently, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced that formal rules allowing commercial drone operations would be finalized in late spring. Part 107 will still require businesses to comply with operational requirements.

The most recent Section 333 Exemptions have taken about six months to be approved. So it’s possible that, if you apply for an Exemption now, you may find that the FAA publishes Part 107 before your Exemption is approved. For many businesspeople, that would feel like a waste of time and money.

While the FAA has historically failed to meet Congressional deadlines, Administrator Huerta’s announcement and the rule under review by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House is a positive indication that the FAA may in fact deliver a rule this spring.

How the Rules Under Part 107 Will Differ from 333 Exemptions

The FAA recently began allowing commercial operators to register small drones online, which is a huge improvement, especially for small business owners.

The last major hurdle facing commercial drone operators today is the legal requirement for an operator’s certificate.

Traditionally, the FAA has relied on instructors to provide flight training and hands-on examinations and on testing centers for knowledge tests. As of December 2015, the FAA listed 696 test centers across the United States, with many cities having multiple test centers. The draft of Part 107 includes provisions for flight instructors and pilot examiners to be part of the verification process.

So, while there may be some delay in tailoring the existing testing system to accommodate drones, the infrastructure is already in place.

According to the draft of Part 107, the new rules will be generally more permissive, or in some cases the same, as existing rules.

Topic General 333 and Blanket COA
Based on April 2016 Blanket COA and Exemption No. 15857 retrieved from FAA.gov on April 27, 2016.
Draft Rule
Training  At least a sport-pilot’s license and current flight review Pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test and recurrent test every 24 months
Medical certificate  FAA medical certificate Self-reported
Crew size  At least 2: Pilot + visual observers  1 person: Operator
Flight restrictions Must not operate in:

  1. Prohibited Areas
  2. Special Flight Rule Areas
  3. DC Flight Restricted Zone
  4. Temporary/Permanent Flight Restricted Areas

Special permission for airports in controlled airspace and certain airports in uncontrolled airspace.

See example below

Must not operate in:

  1. Class A airspace (18,000 feet and above)
  2. Prohibited or restricted areas
  3. Temporary/Permanent Flight Restricted Areas

Special permission needed when in controlled airspace (Class B, C, D and airport Class E)

See example below

Time of day Daylight hours only Only between official sunrise and sunset
Weight limit  55 pounds  55 pounds
Speed limit  100 miles per hour  100 miles per hour
Weather 3 mile visibility, 500 feet below clouds, 2000 feet horizontally away from clouds  3 mile visibility, 500 feet below clouds, 2000 feet horizontally away from clouds
Height limit  400 feet  500 feet
Visual line of sight  Required  Required
Operation above people  Not allowed if not participating or under covered structure providing protection  Not allowed if not participating or under covered structure providing protection
Buffer At least 500 feet from other property  No buffer
Aircraft registration  Required  Required
Aircraft allowed Specified by FAA Any aircraft under 55 pounds
NOTAM filing  Yes No
Incident reporting  Yes  Yes

Airspace under a Section 333 Exemption

Today, commercial drone operators are prohibited from operating in restricted airspace (in red). They must get special permission to operate within a certain distance from airports both in controlled and uncontrolled airspace (in yellow).

Pasted image at 2016_04_28 08_20 AM

Airspace under Part 107

Under part 107, commercial drone operators will still be prohibited from operating in restricted airspace (in red) and will need special permission to operate in Class B, C, D and airport Class E airspace.

Screenshot 2016-04-27 15.37.37

If your business is waiting for a 333 or for Part 107 to be published, focus on building your business

I know it’s frustrating to be caught in regulatory limbo. But the industry is still very young. Focus on building your business so you’re able to launch and operate as a pro as soon as you’re authorized to do so.

Build your business and your strategy. Any business is about finding clients, managing resources, and delivering results. Create a website, learn your potential customers’ business needs, and figure out how you’ll be able to meet them better than others.

When planning your strategy, remember: Businesses operating in such a high-visibility industry should plan on being scrutinized by regulators and law enforcement. In addition, businesses in new markets, like drones, are put in the position of having to positively shape public perception. Part of this means being a responsible and safe business owner.

Operations management software equals successful operations. A successful business is organized, runs on-time, delivers on-budget, and is reliable. An operations management platform, like Skyward’s, will enable you to know where it’s safe to fly, lower your risks, meet regulatory requirements, and manage the paperwork and business metrics inherent to every successful business. It’s the difference between keeping your business accounts in Quickbooks rather than a paper ledger.  

Learn by flying recreationally—and behaving professionally. If you aren’t authorized to fly commercially now, you can still accumulate flight hours and become an expert drone pilot as a recreational pilot. Be sure to use a validated airspace map for recreational pilots. Plan and log your flights just as you would a commercial operation.

If you already have a 333…

Keep flying and look for new opportunities. As new companies enter the market, stay competitive by honing your services, building your portfolio, providing solutions tailored to your customers, and adding new technologies.

Consider specializing in a specific industry such as digital surface models for construction projects or NDVI for agriculture.

If you provide aerial imaging for real estate, you might supplement this with ground-based 360-degree virtual reality footage to help your customer integrate even more cutting edge technologies into their business.

If you use Skyward, you can start expanding your geographical footprint, by sending distributed teams out into the field to your growing customer base.

Prepare for the big leagues. At Skyward, we’ve helped Fortune 100 companies integrate drone services into their businesses by connecting them with qualified operators. Major enterprises expect safety, compliance, professionalism, and a proven track record. An organized business is a sign of professionalism and reduced risk.

Our insurance partner Transport Risk Management understands this and provides discounts to Skyward customers.

If you already have a 333 and civil COA that allows things beyond the new rules, work with the FAA. While most of the activities allowed by the 333 exemptions that we have surveyed are also allowed in Part 107, some will still require an exemption or certificate from the FAA. A good example of this is the grant of an exemption allowing UAS flights at night to Industrial Skyworks.

If you believe this might apply to your organization, contact the FAA Emerging Technologies Team at 9-AJV-115-UASOrganization@faa.gov. If you have a Civil COA beyond the Blanket COA, you should also contact the FAA if you have questions about the impact of Part 107.

Going beyond Part 107

If you want to do more than what’s in the rules, you’ll need to work with the FAA. From operating on FAA test ranges, to managing our own 333, to working on advanced projects with the FAA, and advising clients on cutting edge drone research & development, we’ve learned that safety, record keeping, and planning are essential elements of getting special approvals or certificates through the FAA.

If you are an enterprise looking to stay ahead through special projects, consider partnering with Skyward’s Enterprise R&D Program. We have limited slots available for special projects. Get in touch at contact@skyward.io.

38 responses to “Wait for Part 107 or Get a 333?

  1. Any idea if NPRM 107 will override specialized drone laws initiated over the past few years by States like Florida, or will those laws continue to be enforced regardless?

  2. The NPRM won’t explicitly override those laws. However, the question of Federal versus State and local laws (preemption) is a subject of discussion. This fact sheet from the FAA on state and local regulations isn’t particularly specific, but it gives examples of the types of laws that may be challenged by the Federal government (http://1.usa.gov/1PSPYHz). In addition, Congress is currently working on legislation that prohibits State or local governments from enacting drone laws aside from those related to privacy, property damage, harassment, and similar acts (http://1.usa.gov/1XhPjqO).

  3. Hi X,
    I understand that a US drone operator needs a FAA license but also needs to fly FAA approved drones. How do bespoke drones set ups fit into this scheme? Some autopilots available are better suited for commercial activities (more customisable sensors) and better paired with a third party frame vs. a “out of the box ” UAV.
    Best regards

  4. Thanks X. Excellent info to be sure! I have been speaking to Nick and Gavin regarding your services and this valued added info certainly provides confidence we need to deploy http://bit.ly/drone_franchise. My question might be obvious to some but not to me. Once 107 comes into force aside from having the requirements/adhering to operational stipulations, is there an “application” process like the FAA333 petition? Oh and is it cool having a volcano named after you?! 😉

  5. @ulrica – You can apply to use custom built or bespoke drones. We have various customers that have such aircraft in their fleets. In our fleet with have two DJI S1000’s with Pixhawk autopilots and several modifications such as parachutes, emergency servos, etc. You can document that in your application to the FAA like we did with our DJI S1000/Pixhawk hybrid. The FAA allows you to use any aircraft approved in a previous 333, so there might also be an aircraft there that suits your needs. See this blog post for more information (http://bit.ly/24IUt14) and the government website for the latest list (http://1.usa.gov/1TD2igX).

  6. @brian – You are very welcome! That’s a great question, and I’d have to speculate as to how the FAA is going to proceed. Once 107 becomes a final rule, those will be the new rules for drones. So, there shouldn’t be an application process if you are within the boundaries of the law and have your drone operator certificate. The FAA may put out guidance through various documents such as advisory circulars, orders, memos, etc. to help clarify the rules. If you need to do something beyond what 107 allows, then you’ll almost certainly need to seek an exemption using whatever mechanism the FAA identifies. How much that looks like the current 333 process, I’m not sure.

  7. Hi X,
    Many thanks for your clear advice. We (Erle Robotics) are a European manufacturer of autopilots and drones. I understand now that someone holding a Section 333 can petition the FAA for a new drone, or a bespoke drone set up, to be added to the approved list. It is helpful for US drone operators to see our core products on the approved list. Can Erle Robotics petition the FAA directly?

  8. @ulrica – It’s my pleasure. I don’t believe the drone will show up on the list until someone has submitted for and received a 333 exemption with an Erle Robotics drone. I suspect that the FAA may sometimes be listing the drones exactly as as described in the application. For example, in the May FAA document, item #1124 says “Vulcan frame controlled by a DJI A2 flight controller”. If someone has 333 approval for a drone with your autopilot, it can’t hurt to contact the FAA and ask them if they can list it like they did for the Vulcan. Congratulations on PXFMini and launching your B2B offerings they both look very interesting.

  9. Hi Mike, it’s our understanding that remote pilots will be required to pay a fee every two years when it comes time to take the knowledge test again.

  10. The FAA currently requires ‘real’ aircraft pilots to have a review every two years that effectively simulates the requirements of the initial testing to attain their license(s). In short, it’s an hour of ground time and an hour of flight time with an instructor, but not necessarily an official examiner (who charge more per hour).

    The FAA has online courses (for free) that can be completed to satisfy the ground requirement, and also many pre-approved flight scenarios that can be used to satisfy the flight requirement (which would require paying an instructor plus having an aircraft to use).

    The takeaway from all of this is that I would expect the FAA to have similar methods in place for drone operators eventually. Expect to be required to re-create your initial test every two years at some point, but in a less formal environment than the initial test, and probably at a lower cost as well (if any cost).

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