Haste Makes Progress

Over the past two and a half weeks, more than 75 Petitions for Exemption have been granted.  This means that in a 17-day period, the number of authorized commercial UAS operators in the United States has nearly tripled.

As a result of this effort, for the first time, the backlog of petitions is actually decreasing.  In fact, some of the most recent petitions were pending for 120 days or less, which was the goal originally set by the FAA last summer when the Exemption process was opened up to UAS operators.

How has this been done?  The answer is “Summary Grant of Exemption.” 

When the UAS exemption process was started, the FAA had a shortage of information about what it was people really wanted to do with UASs and how they wanted to do it.  Over the past ten months, the FAA has gotten a lot of this information.  They have worked through the safety cases for a wide range of UAS applications and seen the types of vehicles that operators want to use.  In working through the first groups of petitions, they started to standardize the limitations that would be imposed on the operators as a condition of the Grant.

As a result of this work, the FAA announced that it is now in a position to use Summary Grants of Exemption to speed the process.  In essence, if you want to (1) fly a UAS for a purpose that has been previously approved; (2) want to fly an aircraft that has already been approved in another grant; and (3) you will abide by the limitations of previous grants, and (4) your supporting operational materials have all of the provisions that the FAA wants to see from a responsible operator, then processing time for your approval will be cut dramatically.

This should not, however, be confused with what they did in Canada last October.  Transport Canada, which already had years of experience with commercial UAS operations, issued a blanket exemption to all Canadians to fly UASs under well-defined circumstances.  If you meet those requirements, you don’t need a Special Flight Operations Certificate, the Canadian equivalent of a Section 333 Exemption.  The FAA has made clear that even under this new process, “the FAA still reviews each Section 333 petition individually.”  The new summary grants are merely an additional analytical tool that will allow the FAA to process the more routine requests quickly.

It is also important to note that this does not foreclose anyone from getting permission to fly a UAS outside the parameters of what can be approved under a Summary Grant of Exemption.  Anyone who wants to propose a more complex UAS operation (i.e. beyond line of sight, autonomous, etc.), and who can make a safety case to the FAA to support the request, can still have that request considered through a Petition for Exemption tailored to the deviations from the more standard grants.

Hopefully, these new changes will finally quiet the naysayers who have been claiming the 333 Exemption process doesn’t work, can’t work, and is a waste of time.  If you were one of the few who took a chance last year and filed a petition, congratulations, you are probably already flying.  If you were waiting for a change in the system before you got into the UAS business, this is what you have been waiting for.

(Originally posted April 10, 2015)

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