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Drones – The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) Has Published Draft Regulations. In the Meantime, Do You Have Your Section 333 Exemption?

Published: March 17th, 2015

Anna H. Long

On, February 23, 2015, the FAA published their Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to address the commercial use of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs).  The proposed rules address the operation of UASs, certification of their operators, registration of the UAS and the requirement to display registration marks. Comments are due on the proposed rules on or before April 24, 2015.

The proposed regulations would allow companies to fly drones (used synonymously in this blog with UASs and/or Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles (UAVs)), up to 500 feet and at speeds up to 100 miles per hour during daylight hours.  The proposed regulations will require that a drone used for commercial purposes be flown by a “licensed drone operator,” a newly created certification process to be developed by the FAA. In addition, the drone must be kept within a visual line of sight at all times.  Under the proposed regulations, drones must give way to other air traffic and they cannot be flown over people, except those involved in its flight.

The use of drones by civilians for commercial purposes has exploded over the past few years.  Until recently, the FAA did little to regulate their flight.  The 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act (FMRA) provides a five (5) year roadmap to the integration of civil UASs in national air space.  The proposed regulations are a part of this five year process. While the proposed rules are receiving fairly broad support in the drone community, the expectation is that final regulations will not be in place for two to three years. In the interim, the issuance of exemptions under Section 333, FMRA, is the only way that a drone can be used by civilians for purposes such as precision agriculture, public safety, aerial imaging and mapping, telecommunications, and real estate marketing, to name a few.

Florida has been ranked fourth out of the top ten states expected to see the most gains in terms of job creations and additional revenue as the production and use of drones increase.[1]  Given the opportunities that exist today, it doesn’t make sense to wait for the FAA to finalize the UAS regulations before jumping on the band wagon from a business perspective.  So what’s a drone operator to do? File for a Section 333, FMRA exemption. With so much interest (and need), the exemption process, while not a cakewalk, has become somewhat routine for the FAA reviewers when the application submitted sufficiently addresses the exemption criteria and, as such, 48 exemptions have been issued since September  2014. The average timeframe for issuance is 120 days.

Given that the economic impact of the application of drone uses is expected to total over $446 million in the State of Florida within the next ten (10) years,[2]  it just makes good business sense to get in on the ground floor.

[1]. Darryl Jenkins and Dr. Bijan Vasigh. (2013). The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States. Arlington: Association For Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

[2]           Id. at p. 25.