Here Come The Section 333 Exemption Petitions

FAA administrator Michael Huearta mentioned on several occasions that the FAA might entertain “exemptions” for UAS operators under Section 333. It appears a growing list of companies are seizing that opportunity, including a number of “big names”.


Currently in the public record are some notables, including Amzaon Prime, Yamaha, BNSF Railway and Oceaneering. While a few of the petitions seem to scoff at the idea of pilot licensing, others set standards for themselves. For example, Oceaneering proposes an impressive set of experience requirements:

Position                              Minimum Required Flight Experience

Technician                        25 hours of operations (150 ten-minute flights)
Pilot                                  75 hours of operations (450 ten-minute flights)
Senior Pilot                      150 hours of operations (900 ten-minute flights)
Supervisor                       250 hours of operations (1500 ten-minute flights)
Superintendent               400 hours of operations (2400 ten-minute flights)

That seems like severe overkill. Oceaneering is seeking to use specific AUVs for aerial inspection of off-shore oil and gass platforms, flare booms, refineries, pipelines and power lines, wind turbines, solar farms and bridges. Having worked with Oceaneering, I’m not at all surprised a the thoroughness of their application. Oceaneering’s safety standards and procedures are as thorough as they are strict. With their extensive experience with deep water UAVs, the company is very strong on safety. That being said, their flight experience requirements seem a bit excessive in view of the flight time required for qualifying as a sport pilot which is only 20 hours, 30 hours for a recreational pilot, 40 hours for a private or helicopter pilot, and the requirement for a commercial license is 250 hours. The application was hand delivered to the Department of Transportation by a Washington attorney. A class act, certainly.

The common thread in the Section 333 exemptions that have been granted is a requirement for 200 flights, 25 hours with 5 or 10 hours with the type to be used.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the most recent application to be filed, MicroCopter Pro attempts to make their point this way:

“The illogical assertion that, in order to operate an SUA commercially at less than 400 feet above ground, far away from any airport and within the visual scope of vision of the operator, a pilot’s license would be necessary. The preceding ignores the fact that the most experienced pilot of a Boeing 777 would crash an SUA as easily as an SUA operator would crash a Boeing. This also ignores the fact that, for a number of decades now, even children and young people have been freely operating these devices as Model Aircraft and no catastrophes or mayor accidents as foreseen detractors have occurred.”

That’s not the best way get the FAA to smile on your request: using the term “illogical” and lecturing on flying safety. The rest of the MicroCopter petition goes on to include similar arguments. While their points may have some validity, listing arguments is probably not the best way to win friends and influence the FAA’s approval. We can be pretty sure that application isn’t going to fly.

The application for AeroCine, LLC on the other hand, makes it clear they intend to play by the rules even if others may not, with their sightly caustic statement that:

“To date, AeroCine has rejected all offers to work with feature film directors on locations within the United States, to ensure it is in compliance with any applicable FARs. It has done so despite Judge Patrick G. Geraghty’s decision in the Raphael Pirker matter and his reasoning that no FARs prohibit the use of small unmanned aircraft or lightweight UASs like those flown by AeroCine.”

Hmmm. They were so well, right up to that second sentence.

The City of Roswell’s application was filed by the assistant state attorney for the State of New Mexico. This applicant has done their homework and lists the specific regulations for which exemptions are needed:

The regulations from which the exemption is requested are as follows:
14 C.F.R. Part 21; (Aircraft certifiction requirements)
14 C.F.R. 45.23(b); (“N” numbers and markings
14 C.F.R. 61.113(a) & (b); (Private pilots operating for hire – this exemption is key)
14 C.F.R. 61.133(a); (Commercial pilots as related to above)
14 C.F.R. 91.7(a);    (Foreign aircraft operators —?)
14 C.F.R. 91.9(b)(2) & (c);  (Flight manuals, placards)
14 C.F.R. 91.103;  (pre-flight)
14 C.F.R. 91.109(a); (Dual controls for instruction)
14 C.F.R. 91.119;14  (Safe altitudes over obstacles)
C.F.R. 91.151(a);   (Fuel minimums)
14 C.F.R. 91.203(a) & (b); (Maintenance inspections)
14 C.F.R. 91.405(a);  (Maintenance related)
14 C.F.R. 91.407(a)(1); (Maintenance related)
14 C.F.R. 91.409(a)(2); (Airworthy certificates – another key issue)
14 C.F.R. 91.417(a). (Maintenance record keeping)

Roswell apparently wants to become known for a different kind of UFO (Unmanned Flying Objects).

The application for Northern Virginia Omni Versatile Solutions, LLC lists exemptions to essentially the same list, but specifies that “The PIC and VO will meet the requirements outlined in FAA Policy N 8900.227 Section 16 Personnel Qualifications“. (Pilot In Control, Visual Observer or Spotter). While that “notice” document makes for interesting reading, it was only in effect from July 2013 until it was cancelled as of July 30, 2014. The NVOVS application was filed almost two months later on September 15th. The filing appeared to include no supporting documents. That application has been moved to the docket folder where disposition is “pending”. Omni’s requested exemptions include regulations relating to cruising altitudes and altimeter settings (14 CFR 91-121) and the entire maintenance sectiion (14 CFR 91.401-417) in addition to those regulations we listed for the Roswell application.

One interesting entry in that now cancelled document is the statement that “Civil UAS pilots may be required to have instruction by an FAA-certificated flight instructor”. That hints at a requirement for FAA pilot licensing and training by a CFI… but the only Certified Flight Instructors for UAVs are military.

There are several places where the FAA has hinted at the requirement for pilot licensing, though as yet no specific UAS license exists. That represents yet another Catch-22 entanglement for licensing commercial UAS operation. While it would seem excessive to require licensing at the level of a commercial airline pilot for operating a DJI Phantom, all the license levels below that are precluded from operating for “hire”. For applicants currently holding a private pilot’s license, an exemption to the rule (section 61.113) against operating an aircraft “for hire” would need to be specifically requested. That exemption comes under the heading of 14 C.F.R. 113. Some have been wise enough to list that exemption, others have not.

The applications which can be found in the public record make interesting reading and could provide a guide for others seeking exemptions.

Here is the current list of waiver applicants (not in order):

Motion Picture Applications:

  • Astraeus Aerial (5/28/14) (Granted)
  • Aerial MOB, LLC (Granted)
  • Pictorvision, Inc.(Granted)
  • Helivideo Productions, LLC (Granted)
  • Snaproll Media, LLC (Granted)
  • RC Pro Productins Consulting, LLC/Vortex Aerial (Granted)
  • Flying-Cam, Inc.  — The FAA has now posted an exemption grant for Flying-Cam Inc., to use unmanned aerial systems in the United States on closed movie sets. The FAA had requested additional information, apparently related to the the company’s use of its own proprietary remote controlled helicopter. 

The exemptions rulling can be found here

Non motion picture applicants still pending:

There have been increasing rumors that the FAA may be presenting some kind of draft sUAS regs in “early fall” (October?).  It will be interesting to see what develops in the next few weeks. I think we might expect some preliminary rules with a 60 day comment period that would line up with the mid November 2014 predictions for initial limited implementation.

Be prepared: Log your flight time: Notice 8900.258, section 7(a)

Advise UAS pilots requesting credit for UAS flight time that there are currently no methods in place for obtaining an FAA UAS pilot certificate. As UAS integration and rulemaking progresses, time accrued in UAS operations may be credited in the future for UAS certificates and ratings. Therefore, UAS pilots should continue to log flight time and operational activities to include the make, model, and series (M/M/S) of UAS operated.

This is what we can learn from these applications:

1: Resist the temptation to argue with the FAA.

2: List all the specific exemptions being requested. That entails leaning what the regulations are by studying the current FAR AIM.

3: Provide supporting documents with your filing, including documents relating to insurance (bids for coverage), any current FAA licenses you might have, a formal safety procedures and practices document, along with flight and maintenance logs demonstrating a reasonable amount of flying experience.These documents will tend to illustrate to the FAA that you are responsible, willing to play by the rules and that you are serious.

4: Stay “off the radar” with regard to the FAA. Don’t wave a red flag in the form of a web site or YouTube channel showing commercial flights or aerial video of places the FAA advises against, such as over beaches of populated areas, national parks, over 400 feet, and so on. While it is essential to gain experience flying , use the example of AeroCine and resist the temptation to advertise for or to take on commercial jobs.

Take note of what is stated in Section 333:

.—Notwithstanding any other requirement of this subtitle, and not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall determine if certain unmanned aircraft systems may operate safely in the national airspace system before completion of the plan and rulemaking required by section 332 of this Act or the guidance required by section 334 of this Act.

.—In making the determination under subsection (a), the Secretary shall determine, at a minimum—
(1) which types of unmanned aircraft systems, if any, as a result of their size, weight, speed, operational capability, proximity to airports and populated areas, and operation within visual line of sight do not create a hazard to users of the national airspace system or the public or pose a threat to national security; and

(2) whether a certificate of waiver, certificate of authorization, or airworthiness certification under section 44704 of title 49, United States Code, is required for the operation of unmanned aircraft systems identified under paragraph (1).

.—If the Secretary determines under this section that certain unmanned aircraft systems may operate safely in the national airspace system, the Secretary shall establish requirements for the safe operation of such aircraft systems in the national airspace system.

If you plan on applying for a Section 333 exemption, learn from the mistakes of others and make sure to do your homework first. Here are the steps.


We would like to entertain some questions for our readers:

  • From your own experience with learning to fly a small remote control aircraft, what would you consider a reasonable amount of experience to required for licensing? 8 hours? 50 flights? 20 hours? More?
  • What about testing requirements? Should the FAA develop a specific test for UAS operators?
  • What about observer/spotters? What requirements would you place on persons acting in that capacity? Reading and signing a compliance form such as under provisions under OSHA?
  • Do you believe there should be separate qualifications for fixed-wing and rotor/multi-rotor operation due to the differences in the flying skills required?

Send your comments below or through the Contact page of this web site.