Up until very recently there were no options available for anyone wanting to fly a UAS commercially. In June, the FAA reached into its bag of tricks and pulled out an unused part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, and created the Section 333 exemption. Under this process, anyone who can demonstrate that they can operate their UAS in an equivalent level of safety to the Federal Aviation Regulations applicable to aircraft will be granted a Certificate of Authorization permitting them to fly. As of August 8, 2014, the FAA had received 21 petitions for Section 333 exemptions for commercial UAS operation. The first of these petitions have already gone through the notice and comment period and are now under substantive review by the FAA.
While the Section 333 process has been viewed by many as a stop-gap measure, it should be noted that the gap being filled is a big one. Many would-be commercial operators have been looking to the long delayed publication of the sUAS rules as a transformative event that will permit commercial operations. Statements made at a recent AVUSI workshop by Randy Willis, FAA Air Traffic Manager for the UAS Integration Office, demonstrates just how wrong that perception is. While Mr. Willis said that the rulemaking is still on track, he made clear that what is going to be published this fall is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) with draft rules for public comment. Mr. Willis indicated that, given the volume of comments expected and the complexity of the issues, the final rules would not be published for an additional 18 to 24 months after the NPRM is released.
This brings home the reality that commercial operators face, the sUAS rulemaking is not a quick fix that will open the skies. The publication this fall of the NPRM is just another step, albeit a significant one, in a long, deliberative process. While Senators such as Chuck Schumer can insist that the FAA complete its rulemaking by mid-2015, it appears that the FAA has a much longer timetable extending out to late 2016, and it is sticking to it.
So, the lesson for today is, if you want to fly your UAS commercially, get your Section 333 petition in now, because it is going to be the only game in town for the foreseeable future. The wait for final rules is going to be a long one.
(Originally posted August 19, 2014)