March has been a milestone month for commercial drone pilots in the U.S.
While we still haven’t seen the much-anticipated Part 107—the body of rules that will govern commercial drone ops in the U.S.—the FAA has made a few high-impact changes in the past couple of weeks.
Unfortunately, two of the three rule changes will only benefit new 333 Exemption petitioners. However, the rules are positive steps forward for the industry as a whole.
1. Commercial UAV registration just got really easy
This is a huge change. As of today, March 31, owners of commercial drones can start registering their aircraft online.
The FAA has launched a web-based registration site in order to speed up the process. The cost is $5—the same price that recreational pilots pay to register drones or model aircraft.
“Registration is an important tool to help us educate aircraft owners and safely integrate this exciting new technology into the same airspace as other aircraft operations,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
Online UAV registration may not seem like a major upgrade, but it is. Up until today, commercial UAV pilots had to use the FAA’s Form 8050-1 for Aircraft Registration. They had to obtain an original—not digital, not photocopied—version of the form from their local FAA Flight Standards District Office.
What a hassle.
Unfortunately, you will have to go through the old, paper-based process if you meet the following conditions:
- Your drone weighs more than 55 lbs
- You intend to operate your drone outside of the United States
- Your drone is owned by a trustee
- The drone owner uses a voting trust to meet requirements for U.S. citizenship
- You are required by the terms of a Section 333 Exemption or a certificate of waiver or authorization
Good news: If you’re in the process of getting a Section 333 Exemption now, or you’re planning to, your life will be much easier. Bad news: If you already have a 333 Exemption, you’ll probably still have to go through the old, time-consuming process.
Also, if you’ve already registered with the old system, you don’t need to re-register. If you previously registered online as a recreational pilot and are now thinking of flying commercially you will need to re-register—but at least you’ll get to register online.
2. The FAA just approved 1120 drones, but only for some
Earlier this month, the FAA changed the terms of the Section 333 to permit Exemption holders to operate any drone that the agency has already approved.
333 Exemptions now contain the following language:
UAS that have been previously approved by the Secretary, including the aircraft proposed by the petitioner, are found on the List of Approved Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) under Section 333. The list, which is updated monthly, is posted at www.regulations.gov under docket number FAA-2007-3330. The petitioner is also authorized to operate any UAS on that list, when weighing less than 55 pounds including payload while this exemption is valid.
3. The FAA doubled the blanket altitude authorization
This change benefits everyone with a Section 333 Exemption.
On Tuesday, after a comprehensive risk analysis, the FAA raised the “blanket” altitude authorization for Section 333 exemption holders and government aircraft operators to 400 feet. Previously, the limit was 200 feet.
The new policy allows commercial drones to fly up to 400 feet anywhere in the country except restricted airspace and other areas where commercial drone operations are prohibited.
This is a positive development for operators—but it’s even better for the FAA employees who handle paperwork.
“This is another milestone in our effort to change the traditional speed of government,” said Michael Huerta. “Expanding the authorized airspace for these operations means government and industry can carry out unmanned aircraft missions more quickly and with less red tape.”
The FAA estimates the move will lessen the need for individual Certificates of Authorization (COA) by 30 to 40 percent.
Under the Blanket COA, the FAA will permit flights at or below 400 feet for commercial drone operators with a Section 333 exemption for aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds and for government drone operations.
As always, pilots must fly under daytime Visual Flight Rules, keep the drone within visual line of sight, and coordinate with the appropriate authorities if you fly within certain distances of airports or heliports, as shown in yellow on the Skyward Airspace Map.
And be aware of the new reporting requirements
The new Blanket COA does come with a few strings attached.
Now, operators can fly at 400 feet, but they also have to meet new incident, accident, and mishap reporting requirements. Operators now have to file a report within 24 hours of the following accidents (via Dentons Plane-ly Spoken Blog):
- Fatal injury, where the operation of a UAS results in a death occurring within 30 days of the accident/mishap
- Serious injury, where the operation of a UAS results in: (1) hospitalization for more than 48 hours, commencing within 7 days from the date the injury was received; (2) results in a fracture of any bone (except simple fractures of fingers, toes, or nose); (3) causes severe hemorrhages, nerve, muscle, or tendon damage; (4) involves any internal organ; or (5) involves second- or third-degree burns, or any burns affecting more than 5 percent of the body surface.
- Total loss of aircraft
- Substantial damage to the unmanned aircraft system where there is damage to the airframe, power plant, or onboard systems that must be repaired prior to further flight
- Damage to property, other than the unmanned aircraft.
Pilots are also required to report any incident where there is:
- A malfunction or failure of the unmanned aircraft’s on-board flight control system (including navigation)
- A malfunction or failure of ground control station flight control hardware or software (other than loss of control link)
- A power plant failure or malfunction
- An in-flight fire
- An aircraft collision involving another aircraft
- Any in-flight failure of the unmanned aircraft’s electrical system requiring use of alternate or emergency power to complete the flight
- A deviation from any provision contained in the COA
- A deviation from an ATC clearance and/or Letter(s) of Agreement/Procedures
- A lost control link event resulting in a fly-away, or execution of a pre-planned/unplanned lost link procedure
The COA requires both an initial report as well as follow-on reports that must be made after the completion of a safety investigation. The COA also reminds operators that many of these mishaps are also events that must be reported to the National Transportation Safety Board under 49 CFR Part 830.