FAA doubles altitude limits for business drones

More than 406,000 people have registered their drones with the FAA since Dec.

faa-doubles-altitude-limits-for-business-drones
Credit: Reuters

Looking to remove a little red tape from businesses and utilities that may want to use unmanned aircraft systems, the FAA today doubled the “blanket” altitude for certain drones to 400ft from 200 ft.

Specifically the altitude increase is for FAA Section 333 exemption holders, or potential holders, which have typically been businesses, governmental or utilities looking to explore the drone applications.

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Under the new blanket “Certificate of Waiver or Authorization,” the FAA will permit flights at or below 400ft for drone operators with a Section 333 exemption for aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds and for government unmanned operations. Operators must fly under existing daytime Visual Flight Rules, keep the drone within visual line of sight of the pilot and stay certain distances away from airports or heliports:

  • Five nautical miles (NM) from an airport having an operational control tower; or
  • Three NM from an airport with a published instrument flight procedure, but not an operational tower; or
  • Two NM from an airport without a published instrument flight procedure or an operational tower; or
  • Two NM from a heliport with a published instrument flight procedure.

The FAA said it expects the change will reduce the workload for COA applications (it has received over 4,000 exemption requests) for industry drone operators, government agencies and the FAA's Air Traffic Organization.

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The agency also estimates the move will lessen the need for individual COAs by 30 to 40%. Other provisions of an FAA authorization, such as registering the UAS and making sure pilots have the proper certification, still apply.

“The FAA’s decision to raise the operating altitude of the blanket COA from 200 feet to 400 feet provides greater flexibility to those receiving FAA exemptions and makes it easier for more commercial UAS operators to access the skies. While regulation by exemption is not a long-term solution for the many industries waiting to operate UAS for commercial purposes, this is another positive step toward the overall integration of UAS into the NAS.

The FAA change was welcomed by some as a small step toward opening up the national airspace to unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes.

“The FAA’s decision to raise the operating altitude of the blanket COA from 200 feet to 400 feet provides greater flexibility to those receiving FAA exemptions and makes it easier for more commercial UAS operators to access the skies. While regulation by exemption is not a long-term solution for the many industries waiting to operate UAS for commercial purposes, this is another positive step toward the overall integration of UAS into the NAS,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) in a statement. “However, the FAA still needs to finalize its small UAS rule as quickly as possible to allow anyone who follows the rule to fly. The new blanket COA altitude remains lower than the operating ceiling of 500 feet proposed in the small UAS rule. In addition, other requirements for UAS operators under the Section 333 exemption process are more onerous than those contemplated in the proposed rule.”

Interestingly the altitude boost comes at a time when pilot, air traffic controller and citizen sightings of drones is skyrocketing. The FAA just last week issued a report that said it had received nearly 600 reported sightings of drones in restricted airspace between August 2015 and January. In all of 2015 there were some 1,240 drone sightings by other aircraft compared with about 240 such sightings in 2014 total.

The FAA said reports of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically since 2014. Safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system is one of the its top priorities, and the agency wants to send a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal.

More than 406,000 people have registered their drones with the FAA registry since it went live in late December.

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