FAA Issues First Commercial UAS Authorization over Land

July 2, 2014  - By

Like it or not, as a person who works with geospatial data, UAS (unmanned aerial systems such as drones and UAVs) are in your future. The upside of said technology for “quick and dirty” mapping is undeniable.

GNSS plays a key role with UAS, just like it plays a key role in classical photogrammetry. In fact, UAS may even push GNSS technology into areas where it hasn’t gone. For example, L1 RTK. I wrote about L1 RTK technology several years ago, and while several products attempted to exploit it, L1 RTK never was adopted in any significant numbers, primarily due to the short baseline, clear sky, and longer initialization requirements. However, UAS may change that because, by their nature, they work with short baselines, clear sky environments and require some setup time, at least enough for L1 RTK initialization.

However, before we get ahead of ourselves, the regulatory machine (the Federal Aviation Administration) must publish regulations that provide guidelines on the use of UAS for commercial operations. In June, amidst its recent enforcement actions, the FAA issued its first commercial authorization for mapping UAS over land in the U.S. The FAA issued a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (CoA) to BP to conduct aerial surveys in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. According to the FAA, the first flights took place on June 8 and used a AeroEnvironment 13.5 lb. Puma AE fixed-wing UAS with a nine-foot wingspan.

AeroEnvironment Puma AE UAS. 9.2' Wingspan. 13.5 lbs.

AeroEnvironment Puma AE UAS. 9.2′ Wingspan. 13.5 lbs.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, AeroEnvironment spokesman Steve Gitlin said it took about a year and considerable financial investment to win FAA approval for the BP project. Curt Smith, a director in BP’s technology office, said that manned aircraft are sometimes less expensive per flight than the AeroVironment devices, but that the drones will gather far more data, enabling BP to operate “more effectively, more safely, and at a lower cost.”

The FAA announced that last summer that it issued restricted category type certificates to the Puma and Insitu’s Scan Eagle, another small UAS. The certificates were limited to aerial surveillance only over Arctic waters. The FAA recently modified the data sheet of the Puma’s restricted category type certificate to allow operations over land after AeroVironment showed that the Puma could perform such flights safely.

Texas A&M University Becomes Fourth Operational UAS Test Site

In further UAS news, the FAA announced on June 20 that Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi became the fourth of six UAS test sites to become operational. The FAA issued a CoA for the university to use an 85 lb AAAI RS-16 UAS with a ~13-foot wingspan. The other five UAS test sites are Griffiss (NY) International Airport, North Dakota Department of Commerce, State of Nevada, University of Alaska, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

American Aerospace RS-16 UAS. 12'11" Wingspan. 85 lbs.

American Aerospace RS-16 UAS. 12’11” Wingspan. 85 lbs.

The FAA UAS Legal Stuff

Despite its setback when an NTSB administrative law judge ruled against the FAA in March 2013, the FAA sternly maintains its position that commercial operations of UAS in the U.S. are strictly prohibited without a CoA. In fact, just this week (June 23), the FAA issued a press release about a Federal Register Notice the FAA published of its interpretation of UAS rules for model aircraft in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. In the Act, the Sec. 336 Special Rule for Model Aircraft reads:


(a) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law relating to the incorporation of unmanned aircraft systems into Federal Aviation Administration plans and policies, including this subtitle, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft, if—

(1) the aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use;

(2) the aircraft is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization;

(3) the aircraft is limited to not more than 55 pounds unless otherwise certified through a design,  construction, inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization;

(4) the aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft; and

(5) when flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport) with prior notice of the operation (model aircraft operators flying from a permanent location within 5 miles of an airport should establish a mutually-agreed upon operating procedure with the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport)).

(b) STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION.—Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the authority of the Administrator to pursue enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system.

(c) MODEL AIRCRAFT DEFINED.—In this section, the term ‘‘model aircraft’’ means an unmanned aircraft that is—

(1)    capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere;

(2)    flown within visual line of sight of the person operating

(3)    the aircraft; and

(4)    flown for hobby or recreational purposes.

You can read more (lots more) about the FAA’s interpretation of the Act here. You can submit a comment on the FAA’s interpretation of the Act here. The comment period ends July 25.

More FAA UAS Legal Stuff

On June 25, the FAA issued a press release announcing that seven aerial photo and video production companies requested regulatory exemptions from the FAA to operate UAS before the FAA UAS rule-making is finalized. According to the FAA, “the Motion Picture Association of America facilitated the exemption requests on behalf of their membership. The firms that filed the petitions are all independent aerial cinematography professionals who collectively developed the exemption requests as a requirement to satisfy the safety and public interest concerns of the FAA, MPAA, and the public at large.”

From the FAA press release, “The FAA published a brief summary of the petition from Astraeus Aerial in the Federal Register. The agency opted to ask for comments only on the Astraeus petition because that company’s request came in first, and the petitions from the other six companies ask for identical exemptions.”

Interestingly enough, the FAA is soliciting public comment before it makes a ruling on the MPAA request, clearly highlighting the tremendous pressure the FAA is under to integrate commercial use of UAS in the U.S.

More Commercial Use of UAS Despite what the FAA Says

Back in February, I wrote an article entitled FAA Says Commercial Drone Operations Are Illegal… Public Says So What? discussing the expanding use of UAS in the commercial sector before the FAA rule-making on UAS was completed. To compound the FAA’s challenge, in March an NTSB Administrative Law Judge ruled against the FAA in an enforcement action the FAA attempted to impose on Rafael Pirker: a fine of $10,000 for commercial use of UAS and other violations.

The NTSB ruling against the FAA fueled the commercial UAS fire and certainly gave commercial UAS operators, operating illegally according to the FAA, more confidence that the FAA may not pursue them. That might be the case in an incident publicized last week in Seattle, Washington, where a woman called police after she saw a UAS buzzing around outside of her apartment building, believing it was spying on her 26th-floor apartment. The Portland, Oregon-based UAS operator, Skyris Imaging, was interviewed by Portland’s KATU news.

“It was not our intent to view anything other than the views from a 20-story office building that will be built across the street,” said Skyris’s Joe Vaughn. Vaughn told KATU that a Seattle-based developer hired Vaughn’s company to use one of his drones equipped with cameras to take photos of the view for a new 20-story building.

Vaughn told KATU that his company has a fleet of six drones he says he responsibly flies. He told KATU that his company has strict guidelines to never fly for a third party, over crowds, above 400 feet, or beyond visual range. Click below to view the KATU interview.

Live Webinar at the Esri International User Conference

In a GPS World first, we’ll be producing a live webinar from the Esri International User Conference on Thursday, July 17, @ 10 a.m. Pacific Time in the exhibit hall at the San Diego Convention Center. Of course, the webinar will be focused on one of the hottest topics: high-precision mobile GIS. It will cover high-precision GNSS on mobile devices, from iPads to Android tablets to smartphones.

Tune in or join us live from the exhibit hall floor! Register here.

Thanks, and see you next month.

Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GPSGIS_Eric

This article is tagged with , , , , and posted in Opinions, Survey, UAV/UGV

About the Author:

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as consulted with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributor to GPS World magazine, serving as editor of the monthly Survey Scene newsletter until 2015, and as editor of Geospatial Solutions monthly newsletter for GPS World's sister site Geospatial Solutions, which focuses on GIS and geospatial technologies.

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