Unmanned Aircraft Exemption Requests Now Exceed 50

 - October 2, 2014, 11:48 AM
Former FAA Flight Standards Service deputy director John McGraw advised the first applicants to win Section 333 exemptions. [Photo: Bill Carey]

The Federal Aviation Administration is processing more than 50 requests from applicants seeking to operate small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) by exemption under a provision of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. The number of applicants exceeds what the FAA reported one week ago when it announced the first authorizations.

During a panel discussion at the Air Traffic Control Association (Atca) conference on October 1, Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, said the agency has received 57 requests for exemption under Section 333 of the 2012 legislation and finished processing six of those. On September 25, the FAA approved the first exemptions, which were sought by six aerial photo and video production companies supported by the Motion Picture Association of America. In a teleconference held to announce the first approvals, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency had received 40 requests.

The FAA prohibits the commercial operation of unmanned aircraft. Section 333, entitled “Special Rules for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” states that the secretary of Transportation can determine “if certain unmanned aircraft systems may operate safely in the national airspace system” before the agency completes the rulemaking process. In granting exemptions to airworthiness requirements, the FAA still requires that applicants satisfy the operational conditions of a certificate of authorization.

The FAA has said that it will release a draft of the so-called small UAS rule, which has been several years in development, by the end of this year. That will begin a comment and amendment process that could take another 18 months before the agency publishes a final regulation.

Also speaking at the Atca conference, John McGraw, former deputy director of the FAA flight standards service, said Section 333 provides a way to safely manage UAS operations that would otherwise be conducted outside of the law because companies are not aware of the ban on commercial flights. Now insurance firms will pressure them to comply with FAA oversight before agreeing to insure their planned UAS operations.

 “I think the language of that section was in recognition of the fact that the small UAS rule is a big hairy problem; it’s a broad-scope rule that has to address a lot of different areas of operation and types of aircraft. That’s really hard,” McGraw said. “In the meantime, there are operations that can be narrowly defined and very safely controlled, where you can allow these aircraft to operate without risk.”

McGraw now runs an aerospace consulting firm that assisted the video production companies in applying for exemptions. The film industry was “probably the easiest industry to approve,” he said. “They already control the environment. They don’t allow any images out of the environment because you would know what Harry Potter is going to do next. They already have very robust safety departments.”