Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted several film and television production companies the right to use UAVs for filming. The FAA’s permission for such use is an exemption to the general prohibition in the U.S. on the use of UAVs for commercial purposes and were issued in response to written requests by these companies pursuant to Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“Section 333”). Section 333 grants the FAA the authority to determine whether certain UAVs can operate in the national airspace subject to certain requirements or conditions. According to published reports there have been approximately 40 such requests made and the FAA is trying to make a decision upon a request within 120 days of receipt.
The FAA letters granting approval are quite detailed (and technical). As a result, I have tried to identify the main requirements below:
- The UAV must weigh less than 55 pounds (25 Kg), including energy source(s) and equipment.
- The UAV may not be flown at a speed exceeding a ground speed of 50 knots.
- Flights must be operated at an altitude of no more than 400 feet above ground level.
- The UAV must be operated within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the Pilot-In-Command (PIC) at all times. This requires the PIC to be able to use human vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.
- All operations must utilize a visual observer (VO). The VO may be used to satisfy the VLOS requirement, as long as the PIC always maintains VLOS capability. The VO and PIC must be able to communicate verbally at all times.
- Prior to each flight the PIC must inspect the UAS to ensure it is in a condition for safe flight.
- The operator must follow the manufacturer’s UAS aircraft/component, maintenance, overhaul, replacement, inspection, and life limit requirements.
- The PIC must possess at least a private pilot certificate and at least a current third-class medical certificate. The PIC must also meet the flight review requirements for an aircraft in which the PIC is rated on his/her pilot certificate. In addition, the PIC must have accumulated and logged:
- a minimum of 200 flight cycles and 25 hours of total time as a UAS rotorcraft pilot and at least ten hours logged as a UAS pilot with a similar UAS type; and,
- a minimum of five hours as UAS pilot operating the make and model of the UAS to be utilized for operations under the exemption and have conducted three take-offs and three landings in the preceding 90 days.
- The UAV may not be operated directly over any person, except authorized and consenting personnel, or below an altitude that is hazardous to persons or property on the surface.
- The operator must ensure that persons are not allowed within 500 feet of the area except those consenting to be involved and necessary.
- The UAS must abort the flight in the event of unpredicted obstacles or emergencies in accordance with the operator’s manual.
- Each UAS operation must be completed within 30 minutes flight time or with 25 battery power remaining, whichever occurs first.
- The UAV must yield the right of way to all other manned operations and activities at all times.
- The operator must obtain an Air Traffic Organization (ATO) issued Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) prior to conducting any operations under this grant or exemption.
- UAS operations may not be conducted during night.
- The UAS cannot be operated by the PIC from any moving device or vehicle.
- The UAV may not operate in Class B, C, or D airspace without written approval from the FAA.
- At least three days before flying, the operator of the UAS affected by this exemption must submit a written Plan of Activities to the local Flights Standards District Office (FSDO), to include:
- A statement that the operator has obtained permission from property owners and/or local officials; and,
- A description of the flight activity, including maps or diagrams of any area, city, town, county, and/or state over which filming will be conducted and the altitudes essential to accomplish the operation.
The FAA has taken an important first step in allowing the use of UAVs for commercial purposes in the U.S. The permissions that have been granted are limited, as they only apply to the specific companies that made the requests. However, they are useful in identifying the steps the FAA currently consider to be critical for operating UAVs. Until the FAA proposes definitive regulations, companies that make a Section 333 request to operate UAVs for commercial purposes in the U.S. should expect to be subject to similar constraints or identify alternatives that address the FAA’s safety and operational concerns.