The 333 Exemption Process

Southern Helicam filed for an exemption under Section 333 March 11th, 2015,  which was approved May 21, 2015 (71 days).

Here are some pointers we might share about the experience.

From our interaction with the staff, it appears that the FAA prefers a single, multi-page PDF document, starting with the formal petition document followed by supporting documents. Supporting documents should also identify special qualifications and experience of the applicant.  The FAA has clearly identified what is expected, …even as those “expectations” continue to change:

  1. Petitioners should describe how the proposed UAS operation will be safely conducted to minimize risk to the NAS or to persons and property on the ground. Specifically, petitioners should describe the design and operational characteristics for the type(s) of UAS they intend to operate, e.g. aircraft performance and performance limitations, operating procedures, and aircraft loading information in as much detail as possible. This could be provided in the petition or in an Aircraft Flight Manual or similar document.

NOTE: The FAA will consider all information and data submitted by the petitioner that describes the UAS developmental and operational history. This could include statistical data or other documentation for the specific design and performance characteristics of the UAS, including the operational history and operational failure modes, obtained through previous Research & Development (R&D) and/or flight test activities, e.g. operations conducted under a COA, with a civil airworthiness certificate, or under other authorized operating conditions.

  1. Petitioners should describe any procedures they would implement, such as pre-flight inspections, maintenance, and repair, to ensure that the UAS is in a condition for safe flight. This could be provided in the petition, an Aircraft Flight Manual, a Maintenance and Inspection Manual, or similar document.

NOTE: The Aircraft Flight Manual and Maintenance and Inspection Manual may be separate documents or combined in a single document.

  1. The petitioner should describe the Radio Frequency (RF) spectrum used for control of the UAS and associated equipment that is part of the UAS (i.e., sensors, cameras, etc.), and whether it complies with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or other appropriate government oversight agency requirements.

NOTE: Petitioners should be able to provide the FCC approval letter or show compliance with FCC requirements upon request.

Regarding the Unmanned Aircraft PIC

  1. Petitioners should describe the qualifications required of any PIC(s) who will be directly responsible for the operation of the UAS, including information such as: the level of airman certificate held; any applicable training related to the operation; and any minimum hours of flight experience required by the PIC(s), both total flight time and the time with the particular UAS. If the operation would use visual observers, petitioners should describe their roles and qualifications.
  2. Petitioners should describe the medical standards and certification of the PIC(s) directly responsible for the operation of the UAS.

Regarding the Operation of the Unmanned Aircraft

  1. Petitioners should fully describe their intended UAS operation(s). Petitioners should describe how the proposed operation(s) would not adversely affect safety, or how they would provide a level of safety at least equivalent to that provided by the rule from which exemption is sought. Petitioners should address any plans to implement clearly defined operational borders and procedures to ensure public safety, which includes persons and property both in the air and on the ground. This can be described in the petition, in an Operations Manual, or similar document.

NOTE: The FAA will closely examine the proposed operation(s) with respect to safety of flight, NAS safety considerations, and the safety of the non-participating persons and property during the operational period and within the operational area.

  1. Petitioners should specify the proposed maximum operating speed and altitude, and describe minimum flight visibility and distance from clouds for their intended operation(s). Petitioners should describe potential hazards and safety mitigations associated with these proposed conditions. These issues can be addressed in the petition, an Operations Manual, or similar document.
  2. Petitioners should describe the characteristics of the area of intended operation(s) and the associated potential hazards, in accordance with the statutory mandate under Section 333regarding proximity to populated areas. These issues can be addressed in the petition, an Operations Manual, or similar document.
  3. Petitioners should describe if they intend to operate in the proximity of any airports, in accordance with the statutory mandate under Section 333 regarding proximity to airports.The UAS must be operated within visual line-of-sight (VLOS), in accordance with the statutory mandate under Section 333(b)(1). Petitioners should describe how they intend to comply with his mandate.
  4. Petitioners should describe any procedures they would implement for conducting a preflight safety risk assessment to determine that the UAS is in a condition for safe flight (14 CFR § 91.7(b)) and that the planned operation can be completed safely. These procedures can be addressed in the petition, an Aircraft Flight Manual, Operations Manual, or similar document.
  5. If petitioners intend to conduct operations which have existing requirements to notify Flight Standards District Offices (FSDOs) prior to operations – such as motion picture and television filming, or pipeline and powerline patrol – petitioners should describe their intended coordination in this regard for their proposed operation(s).
  6. The FAA intends to require entities who obtain an exemption under this process to also obtain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA Air Traffic Organization prior to conducting operation(s) in the NAS. The COA application is available here.

In seeking authorization, petitioners will require exemptions from regulations with which they cannot fully comply. [list them with specific reasons]

The standard period for evaluating petitions for exemptions is 120 days. We will report on updates and progress of our petition here. Some suggestions:

  • Obtain ‘N’ number and registration for the aircraft you intend to use. (Details here)
  • If you don’t have a pilot license, enroll in a ground school for Sport Pilot or above. (4, 5)
  • Include documentation of your flying experience (flight log) (2)
  • Address safety considerations (1, 6-10)
  • Include manufacturer’s manuals detailing fail-safe operation capabilities. (1, 3, 10)
  • Address the specific rules for which you are seeking exemption. (Use approved petitions as a resource)

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a U.S. House aviation subcommittee that the agency could better address a backlog of requests from companies seeking exemptions to use commercial drones if it could approve a class of applications that have similar circumstances. Since that time exemptions have been approved in batches of 50.

“Anything that we can do that would enable us to look at classes of operators that have substantially identical facts or very similar characteristics could be quite helpful.”

With regard the part about a pilot license: Recently approvals began appearing which expanded the acceptable pilot certifications:

Under this grant of exemption, a PIC must hold either an airline transport, commercial, private, recreational, or sport pilot certificate.  The PIC must also hold a current FAA airman medical certificate or a valid U.S. driver’s license issued by a state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, a territory, a possession, or the Federal government.   The PIC must also meet the flight review requirements specified in 14CFR §61.56 in an aircraft in which the PIC is rated on his or her pilot certificate.

The proposed rulemaking for §107 calls for a written test on material related to weather, decision making, safety, airspace classification and communications and log evidence of drone flying experience. On that topic, Florida aviation attorney and drone law author Jon Ruppretch makes a very good case for why the pilot certification is over-kill for the purposes of safety, asking the question “does a drone pilot really need a pilot license?”

The way the rules are currently being applied, you can obtain an exemption without holding a pilot license but you have to hire a pilot who does have a current certification, but you’ll probably have to teach that licensed pilot how to fly your drone, which is a really strange situation. That means the pilot will be able to crash your investment “safely”.

Meanwhile the illegal “cowboy” operators, which outnumber the authorized operators, are not bothered by any of this.

Southern Helicam exemption #11636 granted 5/21/15