United States: FAA Streamlines Section 333 Exemption Process For Commercial UAS Operations

Jennifer Nowak is an Associate in the Washington D.C. office

Summary Grant Process Increases Approved Applications Based on Previous Exemption Similarities


  • FAA has announced a new summary grant process for Section 333 UAS exemptions, resulting in more than 150 approvals in April 2015.
  • The agency also has loosened certification requirements for UAS operators and created a streamlined process for airspace authorization for Section 333 exemption holders.
  • FAA specified that most applications generally fall into one of two categories: film/television production and aerial data collection.

In response to pressure from Congress and the high demand for exemptions to use unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for commercial purposes, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has streamlined its processes for granting Section 333 exemptions. Since April 1, 2015, FAA has issued 166 new approvals under its recently announced "summary grant" process.

Current FAA regulations prohibit any use of UAS for commercial or business purposes. In February 2015, FAA published a long-awaited Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing regulations for operation of small UAS (under 50 pounds) for non-recreational purposes. (80 Fed. Reg. 9544 (Feb. 23, 2015).) However, impatient with FAA's delay in promulgating a regulatory framework for UAS, Congress in 2012 required FAA to grant exemptions for commercial use until a final rule is issued. (Pub.L. 112-95 §333.)

On September 25, 2014, FAA granted the first six UAS exemptions, commonly called "Section 333 exemptions" in reference to the legislative provision that created them, for the purpose of closed-set filming for the motion picture and television industries. Although FAA received hundreds of applications, it granted only 33 additional approvals between October 2014 and March 2015. FAA dramatically picked up the pace in March 2015, granting 30 additional approvals, and FAA has more than quadrupled that number in the last three weeks. In addition to closed-set filming, exemptions have been granted for numerous other purposes, including:

  • aerial survey work
  • monitoring of construction sites
  • inspection of offshore oil production platforms
  • agricultural purposes
  • UAS training and research and development

Summary Grant of Exemptions for UAS

On April 9, 2015, FAA announced that it had begun to use a "summary grant" process to speed up Section 333 approvals. Under this process, FAA continues to review each individual application, but will issue a summary grant where it finds that it has already granted a previous exemption similar to the new request. FAA specified that most applications generally fall into one of two categories: film/television production and aerial data collection. Most applications falling into these categories likely will be handled through the summary grant process.

Loosening of Pilot Requirements

In addition to simplifying the exemption approval process, FAA also announced on April 9 that it has loosened one of the most burdensome conditions placed on Section 333 holders. The conditions placed on the exemptions granted prior to March 23, 2015, required operations under the exemption to be conducted by an individual holding a commercial or private pilot certificate and at least a third class airman's medical certificate. FAA announced that it now allows Section 333 exemption operations by individuals holding a sport or recreational pilot certificate. Further, in lieu of a third class medical certificate, an operator needs only a valid U.S. driver's license. These pilot requirements are easier to meet, and therefore less costly to UAS operators.

Blanket Certificates of Waiver or Authorization

FAA also recently announced that it was taking action to speed up airspace authorizations for Section 333 exemption holders. Under FAA's Section 333 exemption guidance, a UAS operator is required to file for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) prior to each operation in order to give a "heads up" to air traffic control that a UAS is operating in a particular airspace. Under FAA's new policy, announced March 23, 2015, Section 333 exemption holders will be granted a blanket COA allowing the holder to operate within the parameters of its exemption anywhere in the country except areas where operations are prohibited by FAA (e.g., restricted airspace and major cities) as long as the UAS is flown at or below 200 feet, and remains at least 2 to 5 nautical miles from airports or heliports (depending on the type of airport or heliport). For any operation outside of these parameters, a separate COA will be required.

While the increased speed of approval is encouraging, FAA has a backlog of hundreds of applications pending and is still working on applications filed in the last few months of 2014 and January of 2015. This includes the most recent approvals, which were granted under the summary grant process, but were issued in response to applications filed late last year or very early this year.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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