UAS Follow-Up: Obtaining a 333 Exemption

Posted by Meredith Kain on September 15, 2015

With cameras getting smaller and more affordable, aerial footage is becoming more obtainable. It’s imperative that any crew you hire has a 333 Exemption from the FAA, and after speaking with Jordy Klein last month about what you need to know before hiring a crew with their 333 Exemption, we’ve received a ton of inquiries about the actual process. To follow up, Robert Davis of Arkansas Aerials – who is currently in the process of obtaining a 333 exemption – gives us insight to the process and what steps need to be taken in order to receive your exemption from the FAA:

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Note that I, Robert Davis of Arkansas Aerials LLC, am not a lawyer…nor qualified in any way to give legal advice. But as a video industry professional, I want to do my best to help others in our industry utilize this amazing technology which will add incredible value to our businesses.

The COA process:

While the FAA would like to say there is a “clear road map” through the application process on their website; however, we found that this is not the case. There are miles of documents and links to pour through, usually leaving an individual seeking information confused and lost in all the FAR, COA, NPRM, AC terms, definitions, parts and sub section numbers. It’s a mess of nonsense for most first-time drone pilots and hobbyist alike.

The best way to get a clear road map to your COA is to contact your local FSDO – Flight Standards District Office – and state your intention for UAS aerial location video and photography. Be sure to request assistance with a check-list and required documents. It always helps to make friends with your FSDO office because they are the local FAA investigative party amongst other duties. There are a few documents that cannot be obtained from the FAA website, which we will discuss later.

After contacting your FSDO, you should receive a reply with a similar set of steps as we did:

1 Obtain Pilot’s Certificate
2 Obtain Medical Certificate
3 Register Aircraft
3A Aircraft Registration Form (Note 1)
3B Proof of Aircraft Ownership
3B1 Bill of Sale
3B2 Affidavit
4 Apply for 333 Exemption
5 Apply of COA

This helps sort through the FAA UAS webpage…but it also immediately causes a problem as the list was presented to our business is slightly out-of-order, with too much information and missing documents.

The first thing you’ll need is going to be your 3rd class medical, which in most cases is required before you can start training in a full scale aircraft. Aviation standards have changed, and most if not all training facilities now require you to carry a Student Pilots License before you get a chance to pull on a yoke or stick (liability reasons). If you’re lucky you may know a certified trainer pilot whom may wave the need for your student license, and may even be more cost frendly. Regardless, if you’re going for the Sport License (cheapest, least amount of flight hours, and no medical required), your student license requires you to have a 3rd Class medical certificate. Your local training facility can provide a list of FAA certified doctors in your area for obtaining your medical certificate.

Secondly you’ll need to obtain your PIC (Pilot in Command) certificate. Unless you’re planning on buying several $10-20k drones, this is the process that will be the most lengthy and costly; the price for your PIC will vary. Flight training facilities set their prices hourly, and there is no standard for pricing in the industry. One facility quoted us about $10k for a private license, while others quoted us up to $20k. I would urge anyone looking into this to visit the facility, and examine the aircraft you want to train in. You will gain a better understanding of why there are differences in pricing.

If you’re still tracking with us I know what you’re thinking: why did we go for a private license instead of a sport license? We looked at the cost and time, and realized for us it was nonsensical to get a sport license because it prevented us from flying for fun with friends or family aboard. If we were going to spend the money, we figured we might as well get involved in the hobby of recreational aircraft flying and enjoy taking the family places. This may not apply to you, but we discovered a desire to share full scale manned flying with those around us, and the aviation community is just a blast to be in, trust me!

While you’re undergoing your PIC training, let’s get the other steps out of the way!

The next step is registering your UAS. After clicking the link above to the registration page, the FAA site simply tells you to go to your FSDO for the document. You do not need to physically visit the office, your local FSDO will be happy to mail you a few AC-8050-1 registration documents (ask for more than you need). The AC-8050-1B, which is available to download, will not apply to your new craft never previously registered.

When filling out your AC-8050-1 you’ll want to include as much information as possible, such as print-outs on your purchase of the UAS, manufacture and model numbers, and your current operational hours on the device. The more information the better; anything that may be pertinent to the particular drone your registering like does it have telemetry, is it a custom build, how did you fabricate the parts? Leave no detail unturned with the attached documents, or your AC form may come back from the Oklahoma office with a request for even more information. The process will be less painful if you can send in everything in one fell swoop.

In our case, one of several identical kit drones came back with a request for proof from the China Air Authority, that the “UAS was never owned, registered, or flown in China” before WE BUILT IT. Yes, it also appears registration approval depends on who’s desk your documents land on in Oklahoma. In this instance, we decided to let the registration application for this particular drone expire after 90 days and re-apply.

Steps 3A, 3B, 3B1, 3B2 listed above did not apply for us, and we are not sure why they were even included in the list of requirements.

The next step is VERY serious, and hopefully you have several flight hours on both your drone and in a manned aircraft. First off you need to ynderstand that once you voluntarily comply with your 333 and your operations manual (because that is what you are doing until the FAA gets new laws passed) you are now under federal law and subject to the FAA and NTSB. Anything you put into the next two documents can, and may in fact cripple your business or your livelihood if you are not very careful. Your COA is awarded on your ability to prove why you can be safely exempt from “regulation” while still technically being regulated. Yes, wrap your head around that, we’re still trying.

Drafting your 333 is quite simple, and you may utilize verbiage from the publicly posted approved 333 letters here.

I recommend reading over several different letters because some are specific to other industries outside of video production. Be sure you are utilizing the CFR and Exemption numbers that apply to your operation. These will vary greatly, but most businesses find it best to just include all possible exemptions. Have your lawyer read over your request and make any appropriate changes and be sure they put his or her name on it for verification

Next up…your Operations Manual!

This last step proved to be a challenging area for us. At the time we were looking to draft a manual, there were no companies in the USA offering a plug and play template. As time has passed, there are now several companies offering just that, just run a search in google. We opted to have ours custom written by a copyrighter… however templates can now be found online for as little as $300 up to 5k for a custom document. Your Operations manual is normally a 35 to 70 page document which details how you brush the UAS’ teeth to how you put the drone to bed (j/k).

Your manual must outline your entire operation, frequency of maintenance, and your safety practices for preflight, flight, and post flight. It also needs to include how you establish your safe flying area, and determine your flight plan on weather, obstacles and bystanders. Ask yourself the following questions: Do you establish a perimeter or safety line? What happens if the UAS pilot is incapacitated? What about battery and storage care? You really need to be meticulous and cover all the details pertaining to the equipment you use on each drone. I could go on and on, but it would be best to reach out to one of the template companies or copywriters before you buy to see how restrictive there template is to your operation. Initially our drafted template was going to require that we raise our pricing and overhaul our operation, but we have since culled the manual down to a more business friendly outline. Since these documents are somewhat proprietary, it is unlikely your buddy is going to share his operations manual for you to copy.

Again, keep in mind that your operations manual becomes your federal law once you receive your COA. If you put in your manual that you change your motors out every 40 Flight hours, don’t wait until 40.1 hours to do this job or you are now in violation of federal law you created for yourself.

We would also like to note that there is an odd method of getting your COA without becoming a PIC holder. Companies are receiving COA by simply having a PIC holder pilot friend come under the wing of their operation. Simply having a PIC in your Operations Manual would appear to push through your COA if all your other details are satisfactory to the FAA reviewing party(s). I would caution utilizing this method, as if your pilot friend is not standing right next to you while you’re operating your drone commercially and the local FSDO officer shows up, their response is not going to be pleasant and may result in confiscation of your equipment and a lengthy, costly federal court process.

Also, there are laws regarding the transmission signals utilized for the video systems which fall into the bandwidth of ham radio operators. If you do not have your ham license, please be sure someone in your business does and is onsite with you while you’re flying.

This information is a lot to absorb, and hopefully the FAA will make good on their promise to pass law for commercial UAS operation as well as possibly revisiting a specific PIC license for such.

In our opinion, the current COA process is frankly ludicrous, and the idea that pulling on a yoke and pushing on a rudder makes you a better UAS pilot is insane – it’s like saying you need a driver’s license to operate your toy radio control car! We know interested parties need assistance with the COA application process.

We wish all fellow video producers the best of luck in this process!

FLY SAFE!

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