March 1, 2017
As of January 31, 2017, the FAA had published 318 approved waivers to 14 CFR Part 107, the federal regulations governing commercial drone operations in the United States. Most of these waivers have been to allow nighttime operations, with waivers to allow operation of multiple UAS by one pilot and flight beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) coming in a distant second and third. The FAA has also accepted hundreds of applications to operate in certain controlled airspace.
That’s encouraging news for commercial drone operators and suggests that the FAA is able to work with companies that can provide evidence of their ability to operate with an equivalent level of safety as following the letter of the law. Depending on your location and types of operations, waivers may be essential to your ability to conduct business.
Take our recent article on the top ten construction cities in the United States. By looking at the Skyward Airspace Map, we see that construction companies in many of the most booming markets will need to apply for airspace authorization to use drones on at least some—possibly most—of their projects. Controlled airspace in the Houston metro area presents some obvious challenges to construction companies and other businesses.
Unfortunately, the FAA has had to reject even more applications than it has approved, usually for a few (mostly preventable) reasons:
- Incorrect or incomplete information
- Requesting too many waivers in a single application
- Requesting flights in types of airspace for which the FAA is not yet granting approvals
- Combining a request for an airspace authorization with a request for waiver
The FAA has said that it’s taking about 90 days to review and either approve or deny an application. That’s a long time, and it means that businesses and individual drone operators must plan well in advance. To have an application denied after a three-month lag time means that a planned project is derailed, relationships with clients and internal stakeholders are harmed, and people will lose trust in your ability to execute.
The worst part? Denied applications are often the result of not following instructions.
Don’t let this happen to you!
In this article, I’ll cover the aspects of Part 107 that the FAA will consider waiving and how to increase your chances of having a waiver or airspace application accepted. All of this information is available on the FAA’s website in a series of webpages and PDFs. These are your ultimate source of truth.
Provisions of Part 107 That You Can Apply to Have Waived
The FAA has made it clear that, if you’re applying for a waiver, it’s your responsibility to make the case that you can ensure safe operations. Consult the FAA’s performance-based standards (PDF) for detailed information.
The performance-based standards simply state the functional capability required; they don’t specify the equipment or procedures need to achieve that capability—that’s your job.
For example, one of the performance-based standards required for a waiver allowing night flights is some method to increase conspicuity of the UAS so it can be seen at 3 statute miles or a system that can avoid all non-participating aircraft. The standard doesn’t specify how this should be done. It could take the form of an external strobe on the aircraft (e.g. Acratex Firefly, North American DS-3, or Flytron Standalone), and it could also take the form of a tethered aircraft and the use of ground-based spotlights to illuminate it, or even a ground-based system capable of detecting all non-participating aircraft early enough to allow the remote pilot to safely avoid them.
NOTE: Don’t apply for a waiver if you want to fly a UAS with a total weight of more than 55 lbs (including both the weight of the aircraft and the payload), or if you want to transport the property of other people BVLOS or operating from a moving vehicle. The FAA will not waive these rules under Part 107. If you’d like to fly an aircraft with a total weight of more than 55 lbs, consider applying for a section 333 exemption. While there is some limited ability to transport the property of other people under Part 107 (within visual line of sight only), regulations that would allow anything other than experimental UAS air carrier operations are still being developed.
Commercial operators that can provide sufficient evidence of equivalent levels of safety can apply for permission to conduct the following types of operations:
- Operation from a moving vehicle or aircraft
- Night flights
- Flying beyond visual line of sight
- Alternate methods for use of a visual observer
- One pilot operating multiple UAS at once
- Not being required to yield right of way
- Direct overflight of people
- Operation in Class B, C, D, or E surface area airspace
- Exceptions to certain sUAS operating limitations
Using UAS if you work for the government or a public agency
Many people working for police and fire departments, public universities, and other public entities reach out to us with questions such as: “Does Part 107 apply to me?” and “How does a police department apply for a waiver?” Be aware that you are not exempt from the law. However, you do have a couple of choices:
- Fly under Part 107, just like most commercial operators, and follow the process outlined in this article to apply for a waiver.
- Obtain a blanket public Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), which allows nationwide flights in Class G airspace at or below 400 feet, self-certification of the UAS pilot, and the option to obtain emergency COAs (e-COAs) under special circumstances. An operator specific (non-blanket) public COA may include the ability to operate at night or within controlled airspace. Email the FAA to learn more about public COAs here: 9-AJV-115-UASCOA@faa.gov
Tips for Submitting a Successful Part 107 Waiver
It may take several months for your application to be approved or denied, so it’s worth it to take your time and be thorough. When it comes to your waiver application, the details matter
- Be specific. Select only the Part 107 regulations that need to be waived in order to perform your operation. Don’t attempt to have every regulation waived. The more complicated the waiver request, the more likely it is that there will be a point of conflict that will result in denial of the entire request.
- Do your homework and be detailed. The FAA wants to know the steps you’ll be taking to ensure that your proposed operation is just as safe as a standard operation under Part 107. Briefly state what you’ll be doing to mitigate risks. For example, when describing the remote pilot’s methods for seeing ground-based structures and obstacles, one of several may include: “The Remote Pilot will ensure that the takeoff and landing area is sufficiently illuminated so that the aircraft can be safely controlled during takeoff and landing and that any obstructions within 50 feet (15 meters) laterally of the takeoff and landing area are visible.”
- Don’t overspecify. Your waiver, if granted, becomes binding. Don’t propose methods or procedures that will be burdensome or impossible to follow on a routine basis.
- Be responsive. The FAA may ask you for additional information. If they don’t hear back from you within 30 days, your request will be withdrawn.
As an example, the FAA gives guidelines for the performance based standards that must be met to obtain a waiver for night flights, which I’ve summarized below.
- Explain in detail how the pilot will maintain visual line of sight with the UAS during darkness.
- Explain how the pilot will see and avoid other aircraft, people on the ground, and structures and other obstacles during darkness.
- Explain how the pilot will continuously know the position, altitude, attitude, and movement of the UAS.
- Explain how you will ensure that the entire flight crew understands how to recognize and overcome visual illusions caused by darkness, as well as the physiological conditions that can degrade a person’s night vision.
- Explain how you will make sure that the aircraft is visible from 3 statute miles or otherwise how you will detect and avoid all non-participating aircraft.
Be sure to consult the complete instructions.
Submitting a Part 107 Waiver Application
Submit your Part 107 waivers and requests for airspace authorization via the FAA’s website. The form is short, and doesn’t have specific named fields for the performance based standards. It’s your responsibility to understand them and make the case to the FAA that you’re taking the necessary steps to protect people and equipment on the ground and in the air. For more information, consult the FAA’s in-depth application instructions.
This is the operations manager who may either be the director of sUAS flight operations in a large enterprise or the owner in the case of a small business. This is the person who has ultimate responsibility for the operation. If you’re a sole proprietor or small business owner, the responsible person will likely be the same as the remote pilot. This person does not necessarily need a remote airman’s certificate. The responsible person is required to maintain a current list of pilots that will be operating under the waiver. The list must include their remote pilot certificate numbers and must be presented for inspection upon request from the FAA. If applying for an airspace authorization or a waiver of section 107.41, the responsible person must supply contact information of at least one person who will be operating in controlled airspace under the airspace authorization/waiver.
This is the person who will actually be operating the aircraft or directly supervising the person who will be. This person must have a current remote airman’s certificate.
Supply information for each UAS that you plan on using under the waiver or airspace authorization that you are apply for. This is not strictly necessary unless there are specific capabilities of the sUAS that are required to meet the performance-based standards for the rule you are requesting a waiver for. For example, if you say that you can meet a specific performance-based standard because you are using equipment unique to your SuperDrone 1000, then use of that aircraft is a condition of the waiver. Remember—aircraft used for commercial purposes must be individually registered with the FAA.
Select at least one regulation that you’d like to have waived. Make sure that each regulation that you select is absolutely essential to your proposed operation and that you have methods to ensure safe operations for each. The FAA has said that applicants who select too many regulations, or who don’t provide in-depth explanations, are more likely to have their application denied. Remember, don’t combine an airspace authorization request with a request for waiver!
You can use the Skyward Airspace Map to find the precise latitude and longitude of your proposed operation.
The field labeled “Description of your proposed operation” may seem small, but this is where you’ll provide detailed information on your use case and all the measures you’ll be taking to ensure your operation is just as safe as a standard operation under Part 107. Use a separate text editor because the web form text window isn’t exactly user friendly. This will also allow you to save the description for future reference or use.
Provide a brief description of the purpose of your proposed operation, focus your efforts on clearly stating the methods you’ll be using to ensure an equivalent level of safety. A good way to do this is to simply copy and paste each performance based standard provided by the FAA into a blank text document and then list in bulleted format each method you will use to meet that specific standard. Make it clear and easy to read. No points for length.
Methods of meeting the performance based standards may include:
- Additional operating limitations
- Special training requirements
- Special or additional aircraft equipment
- Special or additional ground equipment
- Additional crew members
- Sterilized or segregated flight areas
It may be useful to include a “Contingencies” section at the end, where you describe how will you would respond, for example, to a failure of the control link or to the approach of a non-participating aircraft at low altitude. Don’t try to be exhaustive. List the few most likely contingencies keeping in mind that the FAA’s primary concern is the safety of people and property in the air and on the ground.
Print your application to PDF from the browser before you submit it to the FAA—this may be your only record of your completed application. A bit of good news is that the FAA is actively developing an improved method of granting airspace authorizations, which should be available later this year.
Skyward’s Take Flight package is a great resource for establishing and detailing safe, secure, standardized operations in a variety of conditions and scenarios. It includes 190+ pages of operational policies and procedures, including training, maintenance, checklists, and much more.