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FAA speeds up drone flight approvals for firms that don't need them

Here's your permission. And here's the extra conditions which basically nix it

By Alexander J Martin, 25 Mar 2015

The Federal Aviation Administration has established an interim policy designed to "speed up" authorisations for certain commercial drone operators.

The FAA has offered blanket authorisation for unmanned aircraft flights under 200 feet. These, however, will only apply to certain commercial unmanned aircraft (UAS) operators who have already obtained Section 333 exemptions

Such exemptions will come with a set of operational restrictions which could be seen to dilute the value of the policy.

Since the first exemption issued last year, only 60 operators have been granted Section 333 exemptions. A backlog of roughly 800 requests is still pending.

For companies who qualify under the new policy, the FAA has stated it will grant a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for flights that meet the following conditions, as well as staying certain distances away from airports or heliports:

  • Flights will remain at, or below, 200 feet
  • Aircraft shall weigh less than 55 pounds
  • Operations will take place during daytime Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions
  • Operations will be carried out within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the pilots

The FAA describe the COA as allowing "flights anywhere in the country except restricted airspace and other areas, such as major cities, where the FAA prohibits UAS operations".

In its press release, the agency stated it expected the new policy to allow those companies and individuals who want to fly drones within these limitations to start flying much more quickly than before. The extremely limited range of applicable operations and operators, however, suggests it will have little to no effect upon the FAA's response time to all but a very select group of petitioners.

"It’s a welcome development for the companies that already have Section 333 exemptions," said Lisa Ellman, chair of the UAS practice group in the Washington D.C. office of McKenna, Long, & Aldridge and a former drone policy advisor to the Obama administration, to Fortune.

The FAA has been thoroughly criticised for dithering about drones. Its approval of Amazon's request to test-fly delivery drones was so untimely that by the time authorisation had been delivered, the tech was actually considered obsolete. "We don’t test it anymore," Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president for global public policy, told the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security.

Contacts at mission control for El Reg's Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator told their newsroom colleagues that: "While it's lovely to see the FAA getting its act together in this case, we do wish it'd take an equally pragmatic attitude to our Vulture 2 flight – effectively a one-off rockoon mission in restricted airspace over Spaceport America." ®

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