The United States FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) develops the rules and regulations for both manned and unmanned aircraft across the country, and their specialized rules for drones are ever-evolving. The basic legislation that covers commercial drone operations is known as Part 107, and in order to legally charge money for drone-based services such as aerial inspections and photography, operators must obtain an FAA Part 107 Certificate, also known as a Remote Pilot Certification.
However, Part 107 is not a one-stop shop for commercial small UAS (unmanned aerial systems). While it covers the basics, there are a number of advanced scenarios that are not permitted under these rules. This is largely because when Part 107 was formulated, drone technology had not yet advanced sufficiently for riskier operations such as BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) flights to take place safely.
The FAA has still yet to lay down concrete regulations concerning these advanced drone operations, but it recognizes that they are key to the progression of the industry and that companies and organizations need to be able to push the state of the art and start advancing beyond what is possible under Part 107.
The current solution that the FAA is using as a stopgap is to issue waivers and authorizations that allow organizations to legally and safely deviate from certain restrictions laid out in Part 107. This article provides some insights into which small UAS operations may require a waiver or authorization, and how to undertake the process.
Please note that the legal framework surrounding drone waivers and authorizations can be highly complex. In addition to federal laws, you may also need to comply with state drone laws. This article does not constitute legal advice, and consulting a specialist legal professional with experience in the drone industry is recommended.
Waivers vs Authorizations
While “waiver” and “authorization” are sometimes used interchangeably within the industry, there is a technical difference. Certain drone regulations can either be waived, or they can be authorized. The only regulation under Part 107 that can be authorized is 107.41, which involves flying in the controlled airspace around an airport.
Authorization for 107.41 can be requested either through the FAADroneZone portal or through a provider of the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) capability, which has been rolled out at certain airports across the United States.
There is also a method of exemption from drone regulations that is known as a Certificate of Authorization (COA). COAs are available solely to government and public safety agencies and can be used only to grant authorization for non-commercial missions that fall within the remit of that particular agency.
What cannot be waived under Part 107?
The first thing to note is that operations with drones that weigh 55 pounds or heavier cannot be waived under Part 107. These operations fall under the FAA’s Part 91 regulations.
Other operations that cannot be made legal via a Part 107 waiver include:
Operations from a moving aircraft, vehicle or vessel that involve transporting third-party property for monetary gain. This would include last-mile drone delivery operations from a delivery van that does not stop.
BVLOS operations that involve transporting third-party property for monetary gain. This puts a limit on the efficiency of any drone delivery operations.
Transport of hazardous material, which includes crop-dusting chemicals as well as spare LiPo batteries.
Autonomous operations without a remote pilot in the loop.
If you are looking to start a commercial drone operation that encompasses one or more of these aspects, all is not lost. You may be able to gain legal approval via a method other than Part 107 waivers. These methods, however, are beyond the scope of this article.
Drone operations that can be conducted with a Part 107 waiver
There are a number of Part 107 regulations that organizations can apply to be waived. Operations normally prohibited under Part 107 regulations that can be made legal via waiver are listed below, with the relevant section of Part 107 in brackets.
- Operating a drone from a moving aircraft, ground vehicle, or vessel (107.25).
- Operating at night or during civil twilight without sufficient anti-collision lighting (107.29). This may affect drone light shows that go completely “dark” as part of the sequence.
- Flying a drone beyond visual line of sight (107.31). Note that as mentioned above, operations such as BVLOS inspection, mapping and search and rescue may be waived under Part 107, but commercial BVLOS package delivery of third-party property cannot be.
- Flying a drone without having to give way to other aircraft (107.37). This is unlikely to be a required part of commercial applications.
- Operation of more than one drone by a single pilot (107.35). This covers drone light shows, as well as “swarm” operations designed to make numerous applications more efficient.
- Operations over people and moving vehicles under certain conditions (107.39, 107.145).
- Flying a drone beyond certain operating limitations (107.51):
- Over 100 miles per hour ground speed
- Over 400 feet above ground level (AGL)
- With less than 3 statute miles of visibility
- Within 500 feet vertically or 2000 feet horizontally from clouds
The Part 107 waiver process
Applications for Part 107 waivers take place via the FAADroneZone online portal, which requires users to create an account. Individual drones that will be used to perform relevant operations do not need to be registered on the portal at the time of waiver request, but if a waiver is granted they must be registered before taking flight under that waiver.
The online application process consists of a number of steps.
Step 1: provide details of the Responsible Party, who is the official holder of the waiver and responsible for ensuring that operations are conducted safely. This person does not have to be the Remote Pilot in Command. Information includes mailing address, telephone number, and Remote Pilot Certificate number if applicable.
Step 2: select the specific regulation or regulations that you need to be waived, and submit a Waiver Safety Explanation that includes a full description of your operation, plus an explanation of how you will ensure that your operation will remain safe at all times. This explanation can be up to 15,000 words, and up to five supporting documents can be attached.
Required information about the operation includes location and altitude, the types of areas you will fly over, details of the sUAS platform, and details and qualifications of all personnel involved. The FAA has published a comprehensive checklist of operation details here.
The bulk of the Waiver Safety Explanation will involve explaining the risks and hazardous circumstances that could arise in the course of your operation, and how you plan to lessen or mitigate these. The details will vary according to the specific regulation that you need to be waived, but may include advanced operator training, or specialized technology such as detect-and-avoid (DAA) systems and redundant communications links.
The FAA has released a document that provides detailed considerations and guiding questions for each waivable Part 107 regulation, as well as a document explaining the factors that evaluators focus on for specific waivers.
Step 3: wait for approval. The FAA aims to make a final decision on each waiver within 90 days and recommends that you submit applications at least this amount of time before you plan to begin operations.
The FAA has also released a couple of webinars that will be extremely useful to anyone going through the Part 107 waiver process.
How to Apply for a Drone Waiver.
How to Identify, Assess & Mitigate Risks Posed to Your Drone Operation.
Ensuring Part 107 waiver approvals with Elsight
As mentioned above, acceptance of Part 107 waivers for operations such as BVLOS and flights over people requires you to prove to the FAA that your drone platform is as safe as possible. One key component of your risk mitigation strategy will be to ensure that you have a backup plan if your datalink drops out.
Elsight’s Halo is a lightweight and compact connectivity solution for drones that leverages the power of cellular bonding to provide critical redundancy for 4G and 5G communications links. The low-power hardware can accept up to four SIM cards from the same or multiple providers and automatically monitors all link conditions in real time. Should the primary link lose connection, Halo will seamlessly switch to a backup, ensuring continued and safe operations.
Elsight is highly experienced in helping drone developers create BVLOS-capable platforms that satisfy regulators and fly safely under a wide range of operating conditions – to find out more, please get in touch!