Jan. 14, 2015

The FAA recently took a series of small additional steps toward the rollout of small, unmanned aircraft systems (s-UAS) by issuing new regulatory exemptions for select operators, including the first approval granted by the agency to an international media organization.

Atlanta, GA-based CNN became the first news outlet to sign a cooperative research and development agreement with the agency to utilize s-UAS for aerial newsgathering. The Jan. 12 announcement builds upon the cable news station’s existing research partnership with the Georgia Tech Research Institute to integrate s-UAS into its operations, with flights anticipated to begin in July.

“Our aim is to get beyond hobby-grade equipment and to establish what options are available and workable to produce high-quality video journalism using various types of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and camera setups,” said CNN Senior Vice President David Vigilante. “Our hope is that these efforts contribute to the development of a vibrant ecosystem where operators of various types and sizes can safely operate in the US airspace.”

That announcement followed two new exemptions announced recently by the agency. On Jan. 8, the FAA announced an exemption for a Tucson, AZ-based real estate firm to utilize an s-UAS quadcopter for aerial photography of properties, a first for that industry. The agency also approved Advanced Aviation Solutions in Spokane, WA to use a fixed-wing s-UAS in agricultural photography and crop-scouting applications.

The FAA also released a tentative legal framework for local and state law-enforcement agencies to follow when determining the legality of UAS operations in their communities. The guidance includes parameters for legal operation of UAS and model aircraft, and possible enforcement actions against unauthorized or unsafe UAS operators.

“The FAA’s goal is to promote voluntary compliance by educating individual UAS operators about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws, but the guidance makes clear the agency’s authority to pursue legal enforcement action against persons who endanger the safety of the National Airspace System (NAS),” the agency said.

These announcements come as a burgeoning industry awaits the release of a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) from the agency to adopt regulations for legal s-UAS operation. The NPRM originally was to be released late last year, but the FAA now hopes to release the NPRM as soon as it can, and will, in the meantime, continue to grant authorizations on a case-by-case basis. So far, the agency has issued 14 exemptions out of a reported 214 applications.

While supporting these latest authorizations, NBAA Director of Air Traffic Services and Infrastructure Bob Lamond lamented that the agency still has not provided clear direction on how to proceed toward the widespread adoption of s-UAS for a variety of roles.

“Our industry continues to eagerly watch these developments in anticipation of formal regulatory guidance,” said Lamond, who has participated in joint working groups tasked with developing guidelines for UAS integration and operation. “A variety of NBAA Member Companies want to utilize UAS to support their businesses, and NBAA supports efforts toward safely integrating this new tool for business aviation.”

With safety always the top priority, NBAA, which has been involved in UAS working groups (through RTCA) since 2006, has long maintained that it is imperative that any introduction plan for UAS be thoughtful, deliberative and focused on safety. This means UAS should not share the same airspace with manned aircraft until UAS have equivalent certification and airworthiness standards as manned aircraft — including the ability to take timely directions from air traffic control and to sense and avoid other aircraft and UAS — are established.

Exemptions granted for s-UAS operations under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 are allowed if the FAA determines that the vehicle in question will not compromise safety in the NAS.