FAA Section 333 Update: New PIC and 500 Foot Rules

In Drone Law Blog, Section 333 Petitions by Enrico SchaeferLeave a Comment

In late March, 2016, the FAA changed its language in the conditions and limitations of its FAA Section 333 Exemptions. The FAA loosened up on PIC requirements, the 500 foot rule and other limitations. Here is an example of on of the new Section 333 Exemptions granted by the FAA.

March, 2016 Version of the standard FAA Section 333 Exemption

Want to learn more about the newest version /form of the FAA 333 Exemption? Watch this video.

Enrico:  Welcome to Drone Law Pro Radio.  We are talking today about Section 333. So, we’ve been thinking that the FAA has a very tight grip on commercial use of drones in the National airspace.  We’ve also been told by the FAA, and we have seen evidence, that they are going to be loosening up on those regulations over time.  People think that they get a Section 333 that they can now fly for any purpose.  That is not and has not ever been true.  There are couple a dozen conditions and limitations in the Section 333 section that you have to abide by.  Over the last week or so, the FAA has made some dramatic changes to the way in which the Section 333 Conditions and Limitations will work.  So we are going to look at some of those changes.  Which we are still analyzing, but there is the high level view.

This part of the screen we have the old version of the Conditions and Limitations.  So let’s just take them one at a time.

Condition 1.  It used to be that in terms of air worthiness, which the FAA would grant you the ability to fly whatever aircraft you identified in your petition for exemption and for which you provided the appropriate background information.  So, if you only asked for 3D Robotics IRIS Plus or an Actim.  Then you would only be allowed to fly those aircraft under your exemption.

If you wanted to add more aircraft you have to go through the burdens of process and of going back and amending for a DJI 3 or as new aircraft come out the DJI Phantom 4.  The FAA has fixed that.  Now the exemptions that they offer authorize you to operate any aircraft identified in the list of the approved unmanned aircraft systems, under Section 333, at the Regulatory Docket FAA-2007-3330.

Essentially, that is the list of all approved aircraft to date and we will take a look at that in the later episode.  But it is basically everything that you can imagine that has already been approved.  The other interesting thing is that that if they update this list updated aircraft, and then your exemption automatically gets update.  But no DJI 4’s, to my knowledge, have been approved yet. They will very soon.  Your exemption will automatically include the DJI 4’s as soon as the first one has been accepted by the Federal Aviation Administration.  So, that is a pretty substantial change.

Condition and Limitation 2.  For an aircraft.  So if you happen to have an aircraft that was happened to be purchased from a foreign country or has been registered in a foreign country, instead of having to go through the cumbersome process of finding a US based company to own the aircraft the FAA has now loosened up on this requirement.  They are now allowing you to simply get a foreign aircraft permit for your foreign aircraft.  There is a process for that already under the Federal Aviation Regulations 14 CFR 375.41 and a form that you can get for that.  So if you have a foreign aircraft, if you’re a foreign entity, coming into the United States, you can get your Section 333 anyone from any country that otherwise qualifies can get a Section 333 exemption in the US.  Getting your aircraft into the US and then flying those aircrafts has been a challenge that is going to be a lot easier moving forward.

Condition and Limitation 3. So let’s take a look now at this new number 3 which is the PIC the Pilot in Command Certification.  This used to be number 13 under the prior Conditions and Limitations.  There have been some pretty significant changes to some of the PIC … issues here.  13 remains pretty much the same.  Under this exemption you must have an Airline Transport Commercial Private Recreational Sport Pilot Certificate and an airman’s certificate and an US driver’s license.  So that stays the same unfortunately for now until Part 107 comes out, in which there will be small unmanned aerial system certificate being offered. Hopefully by the end of 2016.

Condition and Limitation 4.  A substantial change.  Number 4 used to be number 14 under the Other Conditions and Limitations and there have been some big changes here.  It used to be that operator was in charge of the operation.  Now they are putting the PIC, the Pilot in Command, in Charge of the operation.  There have been some real big changes, so let’s take a look.  The PIC must demonstrate the ability to safely operate the UAS in a matter consistent with how it will be operated under this exemption.   So you have to a qualified pilot. This is a self-certification thing.  You have to be able to maintain appropriate distances from persons, vessels, vehicles, and structures before operating.  You are supposed to go through training in order to make sure that you are able to do that although there is no formal training required.  It is just up to the exemption owner to make sure that the PIC is qualified.  You need to, as a PIC, log your flight hours.  Make sure that if someone says, “What is your level of expertise” that you’ve got all of that logged.  Just as any other pilot.  You need to separate manned flight from unmanned flight in your logs.

Let’s take a look now at a new condition.  The new exemptions being offered by the FAA in Section 333.  This is where we switch. Now the PIC is responsible for the safety of flight operation as opposed to the operator.  The PIC is also responsibility for meeting all applicable Conditions and Limitations in this exemption – what we are looking through now and in any COA that they are flying under.  Whether the blanket OCA or a specific COA for a particular operation.  All training operations must be conducted during dedicated training sessions and not for compensation or hire.  They have this little deviation, where they really do not want you running a training facility for drones as a standard exemption without going through some very special requirements.  So if you are going to do your training for the purposes of being a qualified PIC they have to be dedicated and not for hire.

The operation must be conducted with a visual observer that is the same.  It cannot be the same as the PIC. The VO must maintain a visual line of sight and make sure that they are appraising the PIC of any problems. And here we have this concept of 500 feet, which you will see is modified below.  PIC must operate the UA not closer than 500 feet from any nonparticipating person without exception.  You are going to see that is going to change a little bit below.  We are still trying to understand how to square this language here with some of the language which is the exception below.  So we’ve got some standard items that are the same.

Condition and Limitation 6.  87 knots (100 mph) rule is the same

Condition and Limitation 7.  The same.

Condition and Limitation 8.  The same.

Condition and Limitation 9.  The same.

Condition and Limitation 10.  In 10, we get back to the concept of approved aircraft and you are allowed to fly any aircraft that has already been approved the FAA.

Let’s come down to number 18.  Condition 18.  Tethered UAS operations are now allowed under a standard exemption. Tethered Line must have colored pennants or streamers -50 foot intervals. This requirement is for pennants or streamers not applicable when operating exclusively below the top of or within 250 feet of any structure, so long as the UA operation does not obscure the lighting of the structures.  So, we’ve for some time that the FAA move towards a tethered line or tethered system drone in order to be safe. Here they are saying that’s great.  We approve the tethered drone concept, but we want people to be able to see the tether.

Condition and Limitation 19. UAS operations where GPS signal is necessary to safely operate. The PIC must immediately recover and land upon loss of GPS.

Condition and Limitation 20.  NEW:  If the PIC loses command or control link – he must follow a predetermined route to either reestablish a link or to immediate recover and land.  If you lose GPS and you are commercial operator, you had better already decided what you emergency plan is to get back home and how you going to do that.   So hopefully you’ve preset your app to identify the structures that you are going to have to fly over to determine your return home parameters.  You are good to go.

Condition and Limitation 22.  PIC must abort the flight operation if circumstances or emergencies that could potentially degrade the safety of persons or properties.  If there are any changes in the flight you need to terminate the flight operation.

Condition and Limitation 24. Very similar to the previous exemptions.

Condition and Limitation 28.  Kind of the new 500 foot rule.  This is interesting, because above it says without exception, but then they give you exceptions here.  A.)  All flight operations must be conducted at least 500 feet from persons, vessels or vehicles and structures, unless when operating over near people directly participating in the operation of the UAS.  This is the PIC, the VO and any other consenting people who are involved in the flight.  These would not be the participants of a wedding or the owners of the home.  These are the people in the operation of the flight.  B.)  Near but not over people directly participating in the intended purposes of the UAS operation. We believe this to mean, the people in the wedding, perhaps the home owner in a shoot for real estate, the customer who might be attending the flight, but not participating in the flight.  So here we have this concept of not flying directly over people.  Which is where we see these regulations going?  To keep the drones from flying over people, except in limited circumstances.  People directly participating in the intended purpose of the UAS must be briefed on the potential risk and acknowledge consent to those risks.  Operators must notify the FSDO with a plan of activities at least 72 hours prior to flying over people.  This is substantial change. This is brand new stuff.  C.) Near non participating persons.  Except is under A or B a UA may only operate closer than 500 feet to a person when barriers or structures are present as sufficiently protect a person from the operation and/or any debris or material in the event of an accident.

So, here we have the first big, big change to the 500 foot rule.  You may operate closer than 500 feet if the people are under a structure that is going to provide them safety and they are otherwise safe.  Under these conditions the operator must ensure that the person remains under the protection.  It is your job to make sure they stay under the porch, under the tree, under the tent, under the structure…   If there is a problem then you’ve got to cease operation.  Operating near vessels, vehicles or structures this is again a substantial changed.  Instead of having to get permission, you must now make a safety assessment of the rest of operating closer to those objects. This allows you to do downtown real estate and be within 500 feet of cars or vehicles traveling down the street or other structures, i.e., neighboring properties that are closer than 500 feet.  This is a huge change from where we were before.

For all operations closer than 500 feet to people directly participating in the intended purpose of the operation, not protected by barriers, you have a number of additional conditions that apply.  If you’ve got the owner of the property or the customer that’s there, that is not directly participating in the flight and they are not under a structure.  You’ve got to follow a manual thing which contains at least the following items:

  • Planned activities
  • Permission to operate
  • Security
  • Briefing the individual on safety
  • Communication

These types of issues.  So these are the big changes that are now part of Section 333 exemptions moving forward. This is a significant increase in the types of operations that may be conducted and a big change in the overall frame work.

This is Enrico Shafer, Drone Attorney, and we will see you next time!  Thank you for listening to Drone Law Pro Radio.


The latest changes change operations for sUAS flights in relation to persons directly participating in the intended purpose of the sUAS operation. Such persons must be briefed on the risks involved and provide consent to those risks. Additionally, the sUAS operator must provide the local FAA Flight Standards District Office notice and a Plan of Activities 72 hours prior to the intended sUAS operations. The required content of the Plan of Activities is specified in the Exemption and is consistent with the information previously required under Exemptions for closed-set motion picture and television filming. Finally, the latest Exemptions include additional operations manual requirements applicable to sUAS flights closer than 500 feet from persons directly participating in the sUAS operations. – See more at: http://www.natlawreview.com/article/faa-changes-to-section-333-exemption-conditions-create-new-opportunities-utilities#sthash.SZVvG3TP.dpuf

Section 333 approvals granted now include language that allows the use any unmanned aerial vehicle on the list of UAVs previously approved by the FAA. Before this adjustment, only UAVs specifically listed by the petitioning company would be granted an exemption and adding any others would require an amendment. According to the FAA, if you received an exemption before March 2016, this rule does not apply to your exemption. All exemptions filed before March 2016 must file an amendment if you want to add additional aircraft(s).

Also new is a change to the 500′ distance mandate, which is typically #26 in the approval letters granted before March 2016. The new language replaces the need to file an MPTOM with your exemption in order to work in close proximity to people, places and things. According to the FAA today, “You do not have to submit an MPTOM, but you must still abide by the conditions and limitations as set forth in your exemption.

Operators must now notify the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) with a plan of activities at least 72 hours prior to flight operation. People directly participating in the intended purpose of the UAS must be briefed on the potential risks and acknowledge and consent to those risks. And you must also have a Standard Operating Manual with you on site.

If you received your exemption before March 2016, we recommend filing an amendment to take advantage of these changes.

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