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U.S. grants exemptions for commercial UAV operations for construction monitoring, agriculture, and real estate

In general the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for commercial purposes is illegal in the U.S. But in the last few months the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued grants of exemption to six companies for commercial UAVs for general aerial surveys (Trimble, Woolpert) and specifically for construction monitoring (Clayco, Inc), agriculture (Advanced Aviation Solutions), on and offshore oil and gas inspections (VDOS Global), and real estate (Douglas Trudeau, Realtor).

In 2011 the FAA fined a UAV operator $10,000 for flying a radio-controlled airplane recklessly over the University of Virginia campus to make a commercial for the University. Early in 2014 a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Judge ruled that the FAA ban on flying UAVs was not legally binding. The judge said that the FAA had historically exempted model aircraft from the statutory definitions of aircraft. March 7 the FAA issued a notice saying that it was appealing the decision to the full National Transportation Safety Board. The FAA cited its regulation of model aircraft under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) which states that “if a model aircraft operator endangers the safety of the National Airspace System, the FAA has the authority to take enforcement action against those operators for those safety violations.” November 18 the NTSB supported the FAA saying that an unmanned aircraft is subject to enforcement of FAA regulations prohibiting reckless operation of aircraft.

Astreus Aerial UAVThe FAA has issued 14 grants of exemption for commercial operation of UAVs. The first was to a manufacturer of UAVs used in film production. The FAA found that a “grant of exemption is in the public interest. Therefore … Astraeus Aerial is granted an exemption … to the extent necessary to allow Astraeus to operate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for the purpose of scripted, closed-set filming for the motion picture and television industry.”

The requirements for operation of the UAV imposed by the FAA are restrictive (Astraeus Aerial Grant of Exemption);

  • The UAV must weigh less than 55 pounds.
  • The UA can not be flown at a ground speed exceeding 50 knots.
  • Flights must be operated at an altitude of no more than 400 feet above ground level (AGL).
  • The UA must be operated within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the pilot at all times.
  • All operations must utilize a visual observer (VO). The VO and the pilot must be able to communicate verbally at all times.
  • The pilot must possess at least a private pilot certificate and at least a current third-class medical certificate.
  • The pilot must have accumulated and logged a minimum of five hours operating the UAV.
  • The UAV may not be operated directly (within 500 ft) over any person, except authorized and consenting production personnel.
  • Each UAV operation must be completed within 30 minutes flight time or with 25% battery power remaining, whichever occurs first.
  • The operator must obtain an Air Traffic Organization (ATO) issued Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) prior to any operations under this grant of exemption.
  • The UAV must remain clear and yield the right of way to all other manned operations and activities at all times (ultralight vehicles, parachute activities, parasailing activities, hang gliders, etc.).
  • UAV operations may not be conducted at night.
  • The UAV may not be operated by a pilot from a moving device or vehicle.
  • The UAV may not be operated less than 500 feet below or less than 2,000 feet horizontally from a cloud or when visibility is less than 3 statute miles.

This is certainly not going to allow the deployment of long range UAVs like the Silent Falcon with a daytime endurance estimated to be 5 to 12 hours depending on wing configuration, weather, and flight profile. Night-time endurance is estimated at 3 to 5 hours. For example, equipped with LiDAR this could be used for transmission line monitoring for vegetation management at a much lower cost than a manned helicopter.

December 10 the FAA issued grants of exemption to four additional companies;

  • Clayco, Inc. , a general contractor, to operate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for the purpose of aerial imaging to monitor and ensure safety of construction sites.
  • Trimble Navigation Ltd, a provider of Trimble UX5 exemptionadvanced location-based solutions, to allow Trimble to operate the UX5 UAS for the special purpose of precision aerial surveys that consist of still photographs taken by an onboard camera.
  • VDOS Global, LLC, a provider of aerial inspection services to the on and off-shore oil & gas industry, to allow VDOS to operate unmanned aircraft systems for the purpose of flare stack inspections on 14 Shell Oil Gulf of Mexico production platforms with all platforms beyond 12 nautical miles of the coast of the United States.
  • Woolpert, Inc, a design, geospatial and infrastructure management firm, to allow Woolpert to operate the Altavian Nova Block III unmanned aircraft system for the special purpose of precision aerial surveys that consist of still photographs taken by an onboard camera.

January 5 two more exemptions were granted;

  • Douglas Trudeau, a realtor, to operate unmanned aircraft systems for the purpose of aerial videography/cinematography and augment real estate listing videos.
  • Advanced Aviation Solutions to operate unmanned aircraft systems for the purpose of aerial imagery to support agriculture.