Commentary: Paul Fraidenburgh, Esq.

Avionics Today, March 23, 2015

The FAA has granted 48 total petitions giving operators approval to fly Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) commercially. Recent developments, including an approval for Amazon to begin flying its Prime Air UAS experimentally, reflect the agency’s commitment to approve commercial UAS operations while the industry awaits a final set of regulations for integrating unmanned aircraft into civil airspace.

Operators that have gone through the process of obtaining a Section 333 approval have found the FAA to be very committed to approving their operation. Clint Stevens, executive director and co-founder of Blue-Chip UAS, told Avionics Magazine the application process was made easy by the FAA’s UAS Integration office. This department authorized Stevens’ company to operate a UAS within 5 nautical miles of any airport or airfield inside Class E airspace with an approved Certificate of Authorization (COA).

“The things they’re looking for are, what [Code of Federal Regulations] CFRs are you requesting exemptions from and then they want to know what aircraft you’re using, along with the operations manual and the maintenance manual. They want to look at how your operations are set up, how your training is set up and then what type of aircraft it is — fixed wing, quad copter, rotary wing — and what are the safety features built into the aircraft,” said Stevens. “The whole idea behind it is to take the rules of UAVs and try to match the applied safety procedures as closely as they can with an actual manned aircraft.

Blue-Chip will be using a Sensurion Magpie equipped with communications software that will collect seismic quality control data from ground-based sensors that are designed to collect sub surface seismic activity while searching for oil and gas pockets. The UAS will fly over the sensors, communicate with them and ensure that they’re working properly. Sensurion’s Magpie UAS received a Special Airworthiness Certificate (SAC) from the FAA to operate at the agency’s Nevada UAS test range airspace.

Stevens himself wrote the application and filed the petition to acquire a Section 333 exemption from the FAA, and mentioned that the FAA granted the approval within four months. However, most operators use law firms to file the petition, which includes requirements for a flight operations manual, maintenance and inspection manual, a description of the Radio Frequency (RF) spectrum used for control of the UAS among other qualifications. Paul Fraidenburgh, a lawyer in the aviation and aerospace practice group for Buchalter Neimer, told Avionics Magazine that a recently filed a petition on behalf of photography company Picture Factory, won what he calls a “landmark decision” for production companies using UAS for aerial filming and photography.

“What was significant about the Picture Factory exemption was that this was not something where it was backed by some sort of large studio in Los Angeles or the [Motion Picture Association of America] MPAA,” said Fraidenburgh, who has gained a national reputation for helping operators obtain Section 333 approvals. “It was a great success for the Midwest and Picture Factory and it’s a success for the smaller production companies that are learning to use this technology to compete with the larger companies. Previously, the FAA was sort of holding these filmmaking activities to only scripted filming. What was significant about this exemption was this does not contain that limitation. So, that opens the doors for some very interesting work.”

Fraidenburgh also has an interesting perspective on the FAA’s recently issued Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for commercial UAS operations. He estimates that the official rules could take anywhere between 18 to 36 months to come out, and leading up to the final release of those regulations, the Section 333 approval process becomes even more relevant than it was before the NPRM came out.

“Section 333 remains the holy grail for filmmakers, farmers, flare stack inspectors — anyone who wants to use drones in the U.S. airspace for the foreseeable future,” said Fraidenburgh. “We now have a time period where, for this limited period of time, you can go through this process and it’s no longer this huge barrier to entry. Usually what you’ll see is to get a Section 333 granted, it typically was granted 140 days from the day that it was filed. If you look at some of the timelines, that’s a great turnaround. There are now firms out there that are offering these services in a way that is accessible and cost effective for smaller groups and you don’t have to be backed by the MPAA to get one granted; that’s sort of a shift.”