Thursday, January 8, 2015

FAA Approves Ag Drone Flights for One Company: Is Decision a Road Map for Others?

The Federal Aviation Administration has granted a Washington company (Advanced Aviation Solutions LLC) an exemption to fly unmanned aerial vehicles ("UAVs" or "drones") commercially for "precision agriculture" and "crop scouting" purposes.  In general, FAA regulations prohibit any person from flying a UAV in national airspace without an airworthiness certification (except for model aircraft flow under the "hobby" aircraft guidance document).  A person may seek to avoid airworthiness certification by seeking an exemption under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”).  To date, these exemptions have been issued sparingly.  This latest exemption, however, may provide other ag drone operators with a road map for obtaining their own exemption from current FAA regulations.  

The Section 333 Exemption granted to the Advanced Aviation Solutions was not a blanket license to fly drones.  Instead, the FAA's exemption came with a number of conditions, which are below:
  1. Flight operations are limited to fixed-wing aircraft weighing approximately 1.5 pounds, such as the SenseFly eBee Ag (eBee Ag). 
  2. The UAV may not be flown at an indicated airspeed exceeding 70 knots.
  3. The UAV must be operated at an altitude of no more than 400 feet above ground level (AGL).
  4. The UAV must be operated within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the pilot in command (PIC) at all times. 
  5. All operations must utilize a visual observer (VO), who must be able to communicate with the PIC at all times. 
  6. The PIC must possess at least a private pilot certificate and at least a current third-class medical certificate. 
  7. UAV operations may not be conducted during night.
  8. The UAV may not operate within 5 nautical miles of the airport reference point as denoted on a current FAA-published aeronautical chart.
  9. If the UAV loses communications or loses its GPS signal, it must return to a predetermined location within the planned operating area and land or be recovered in accordance with the operating documents.
  10. The PIC is prohibited from beginning a flight unless (considering wind and forecast weather conditions) there is enough power to fly at normal cruising speed to the intended landing point and land the UA with 30% battery power remaining.
  11. The operator must obtain an Air Traffic Organization (ATO) issued Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) prior to conducting any operations under this grant of exemption. 
  12. The UAV must remain clear and yield the right of way to all other manned aviation operations and activities at all times.
  13. The UAV may not be operated by the PIC from any moving device or vehicle.
  14. The UAV may not be operated over congested or densely populated areas.
  15. Flight operations must be conducted at least 500 feet from all nonparticipating persons, vessels, vehicles, and structures.
  16. All operations shall be conducted over private or controlled-access property with permission from the landowner or authorized representative.
There are numerous other conditions in the exemption not listed above that pertain to pre-flight activities, record-keeping, and safety.  Other drone operators should remember that this latest FAA exemption is applicable only to Advanced Aviation Solutions. Other operators must obtain their own exemption or wait for the FAA to issue regulations for all commercial drone flights. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that these conditions will point the way for other commercial drone flyers to seek their own Section 333 exemptions--if they are willing to invest the time and money to do so.  

You can read the entire exemption here:  Grant of Exemption.

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