FAA Announces New Policy to Streamline UAS Integration for Low-Level Flights

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced a new policy aimed at reducing the amount of time it takes for companies to deploy unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Specifically, companies that have obtained a Section 333 exemption for a UAS will now receive a "blanket" Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for flights at or below 200 feet. In the past, once the FAA granted a Section 333 Exemption the exemption holder would also have to file for a separate COA to fly the UAS in a particular block of airspace. The COA approval process can take 60 days.   This announcement comes on the heels of the FAA's release of a proposed rule governing small UAS flights in the United States. A major component of the proposed rule that stakeholders have supported was the FAA's introduction of alternatives to the COA process.

"Blanket" COA for Section 333 Exemption Holders

Under the new policy, the FAA will automatically grant a COA for flights below 200 feet to any UAS operator that has been granted a Section 333 exemption for aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds, operate during daytime Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions, operate within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the pilots, and stay certain distances away from airports or heliports. The airport distance limitations are as follows:

  • 5 nautical miles (NM) from an airport having an operational control tower; or
  • 3 NM from an airport with a published instrument flight procedure, but not an operational tower; or
  • 2 NM from an airport without a published instrument flight procedure or an operational tower; or
  • 2 NM from a heliport with a published instrument flight procedure.

The FAA has indicated that current Section 333 exemption holders will receive the "blanket" COA automatically. If a UAS operator is still in the process of seeking approval from FAA, a "blanket" COA will only be issued if and when the Section 333 exemption is approved.

UAS operators that plan to fly above 200 feet or that otherwise need to operate under conditions beyond those contained in the "blanket" COA would be required to proceed through the usual COA approval process.

The FAA is currently accepting comments on its proposed small UAS rule through April 24, 2015.   More information on the types of input the FAA is seeking can be found in my recent blog, here.

Michael Weller advises clients in the energy sector in the context of regulatory compliance and enforcement actions. He regularly advocates for clients in the face of new regulatory initiatives. He joined Bracewell after 7 years working as an environmental consultant and satellite imagery analyst, which included extensive work with Geographic Information Systems and Remote Sensing assisting in the production of the world's first medium resolution land-cover database for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). His scientific background and prior career enables him to offer clients unique depth and insight into issues involving complex scientific principles.