As UAS exemptions grow, questions remain on qualifications

The agency announced Wednesday it had approved five more requests for four different companies to use drones for aerial surveying, construction site monitoring and oil rig flare stack inspections.

The list of companies authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct testing with unmanned aircraft systems continues to grow.

The agency announced Wednesday it had approved five more requests for four different companies to use drones for aerial surveying, construction site monitoring and oil rig flare stack inspections. Clayco Inc., a construction company; Trimble Navigation Ltd., a laser and global positioning system technology company; and VDOS LLC, an offshore oil and gas inspection company, each received one exemption from FAA. Woolpert Inc., a design, geospatial and infrastructure management firm, received two exemptions.

Granted under Section 333 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reauthorization Act, the exemptions allow FAA to grant commercial companies the ability to operate drones if their need to use UAS technology is high enough.

In some cases, when a commercial entity is granted a UAS exemption, it must then also receive a certificate of airworthiness to ensure that the piloting of the craft does not interfere with the security of the national airspace. However, the latest additions didn’t need a certificate of airworthiness, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a release.


So far, the agency has granted seven exemptions to members of the Motion Picture Association of America and one certificate of waiver/authorization to BP PLC in June. Altogether, as of Wednesday, the agency has received 167 requests for exemption from commercial entities.

Meanwhile, at aWednesday hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation, debate continued over the qualifications a pilot must have to operate a drone.

“With what the FAA has been doing, treating [UAS] as an airplane, and going through a process of certificating the aircraft, certificating the operator and certificating the pilot and monitoring and oversight of all of that, I think is one of the foundations of continuing with a safe national airspace,” Lee Moak, the president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said during the hearing. “I think we need to be focused on that safety part of it.”

The topic of airworthiness and pilot qualifications is especially relevant, given that the public likely will soon see FAA’s notice of proposed rulemaking on small UAS, which is currently under executive review, according to FAA Associate Administrator Peggy Gilligan. After the executive review is complete, it will be distributed to the public, she said.

Also at the hearing, members of Congress questioned the effectiveness of FAA’s six test sites, which are used to help the agency better develop the rules of airspace integration.


“The important thing for test sites is the ease of access so that small companies, large companies, all have the same opportunities to go utilize the airspace,” said Jesse Kallman, head of regulatory affairs for California-based Airware. “Obviously, safety is the utmost importance but [so is] ensuring that these areas are able to allow for companies to get that approval and come and test.”

With fewer tightly constrained regulations to the six test sites and fewer requirements to operate under the strict guidelines at the sites, companies would be able to have the opportunity to test technologies like beyond-line-of-sight and other issues currently banned by FAA even under the exemptions.

“In an ideal world, the ability to designate local flight areas anywhere as test areas that have clear rules,” said Nicholas Roy, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “For instance, if you are more than 150 meters from ground structure and you have secured the airspace, theoretically that would allow you to fly [UAS].”

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said everyone who testified and the members of Congress present all believed that safety was the paramount concern.

“To me it was loud and clear, safety is paramount, but this can be done,” Shuster said.

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