From drone filmmaking to drone-based precision agriculture techniques, the contribution of drone technology to the nation’s economy has become more significant in the past few years and is expected to continue to grow. On the flip side, the increasing number of drones have also resulted in public concerns on safety and invasion of privacy. The FAA plays the unenviable role of regulating drone use while still ensuring that the restrictions they implement do not hinder the growth of commercial drone applications.
One of the most well-known pieces of legislation regarding drone use is Section 333. For many early adopters, getting a Section 333 exemption was the best way to legally fly a drone for commercial use. In this article, we take a detailed look at what a Section 333 exemption is, and if it is still relevant today.
What is Section 333 anyway?
Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to determine if an unmanned aircraft needs to have an airworthiness certificate for it to operate safely within the national airspace system. In a bid to support the development of the commercial use of drone technology, the FAA declared that an airworthiness certificate will not be necessary for small unmanned aircraft, including drones that weighed less than 55 lbs. However, being allowed to operate a drone without an airworthiness certificate was subject to several conditions and restrictions – thus the Section 333 exemption was born.
The first Section 333 exemption was granted in September 2014 to a film crew that was using a drone for closed-set filming. More recently, Section 333 was repealed by the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act, replacing it with the Special Authority for Unmanned Systems. The new legislation serves essentially the same purpose. Although the Special Authority for Unmanned System is more accurately referred to as the 49 USC Section 44807, most references and authorities still refer to it as Section 333. For clarity’s sake, we shall continue to refer to it as Section 333 in this article.
How can I get a Section 333 exemption?
All applications for a Section 333 exemption need to be filed using the online Federal Docket Management System. The FAA recommends that all petitions be filed 120 days before the exemption is required.
When assessing a petition, the FAA will likely look for details that focus on how an unmanned aircraft can be safely operated within national airspace. The following list summarizes the most important details you need to include in a petition for a Section 333 exemption.
- The model of drone that will be used including details on its design, operational characteristics, performance limitations, and aircraft loading information. For safety considerations, you may also include any failsafe features or operational failure modes. If the aircraft has previously been used in other authorized drone operations such as under an FAA COA, then it is also worth mentioning in the petition.
- Any safety-related procedures such as pre-flight checklists, regular maintenance schedules, or repairs. An operator has the option to include these details in a separate Aircraft Flight Manual or Maintenance and Inspection Manual. Having separate manuals is not a requirement and is upon the discretion of the petitioner.
- A description of the radio frequency (RF) spectrum that the drone uses for communication, as well as any associated equipment such as cameras and sensors. The operator also needs to provide a proof that the transmission technology of the drone complies with the standards of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or other similar government agencies.
- The qualifications of the pilot-in-command (PIC) who will operate the drone. Ideally, this should include the number of hours that the PIC has operated a drone, with the hours spent flying the particular drone specified in the petition treated as a separate figure. The petitioner should also mention if the PIC has held any airman certificate or undergone any applicable training. If the drone operations will involve a visual observer, then the petition should describe the role of the visual observer and their qualifications.
- The medical condition of the PIC, including any applicable standards and certifications.
- Details on the proposed drone operations, including any safety procedures and self-imposed flight limitations. The FAA will focus on measures that ensure the safety of non-participating persons, both in the air and on the ground. If the petitioner chooses to come up with a separate Operations Manual, then the safety procedures can be included therein.
- The proposed maximum flight speed and altitude, and the minimum flight visibility that will be maintained during operations. The petitioner also needs to include any potential safety hazards and any measures that the operator will take to mitigate such measures.
- A description of the area of intended operations, and the hazards associated with the area. If the operations will be conducted within a closed geographical region, the borders of this region will have to be defined. The petitioner also needs to mention if the proposed area of operation is in proximity to any airports.
- The petitioner needs to indicate how the operator intends to maintain visual line-of-sight.
- A description of the procedure that the drone operator needs to execute during pre-flight safety risk assessment.
- If the intended operation needs to be coordinated with an associated Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), the petitioner needs to identify the relevant agency and how they intend to coordinate with the agency with regards to the proposed operation.
Take note that operating a drone with a Section 333 exemption will still require a blanket COA from the FAA, at the very least. A “blanket” COA is enough for operations below 400 feet. Beyond this altitude, a drone pilot will need to apply for a “full” COA.
How is it different from a Part 107 license?
While getting a Section 333 exemption involves providing a detailed description of the drone operations and waiting for the FAA to approve your petition, the process for getting a Part 107 license is faster and much more streamlined. To get a Part 107 license, the drone pilot only needs to pass a 60-item multiple choice knowledge test which covers several aspects of drone flight such as meteorological conditions, interpreting sectional charts, drone loading, and airspace classifications. Instead of the 120 days that it typically takes to get an approved Section 333 exemption, the whole process of getting a Part 107 license can be completed within a month.
In addition to the faster approval process, the Part 107 rules are a little less restrictive compared to a Section 333 exemption. However, this might be irrelevant, as Section 333 exemption holders are eligible for “grandfathered” compliance with Part 107, as discussed in more detail in the following section.
There are also a few restrictions that are exactly the same in both the Part 107 license and Section 333 exemption. For instance, drone operators are still required to maintain visual line-of-sight at all times. Both standards also prohibit drone flight over non-participating people, or in restricted airspace without prior permission from air traffic control (ATC).
Do I need a Part 107 license if I already have a Section 333 exemption?
When the Part 107 rules were enacted, the FAA was careful to protect entities and individual who had already been granted Section 333 exemptions from having to apply for another certification. Thus, Section 333 exemption holders were effectively “grandfathered” into compliance with the new Part 107 rules. After all, these exemption holders had already gone through the FAA’s vetting process that ensured that their operations did not pose a safety or security risk.
Moreover, the FAA was cognizant of the fact that the Part 107 rules were, in many ways, less restrictive than the Section 333 exemption. To even the playing field, Section 333 exemption holders were given the benefit of operating within the limits of Part 107 instead of operating under the Section 333 exemption. When the Section 333 exemptions expire and need to be renewed, the FAA will assess whether the renewal of the exemption will be necessary, or if the proposed drone operations will be fully covered by the Part 107 rules.
This means that current holders of Section 333 exemptions need not apply for a Part 107 drone license. However, it still worth the time of exempt drone operators to study the Part 107 rules, as they can take advantage of the less stringent limitations of the new set of restrictions. Holders of Section 333 exemptions may also be required to apply for a Part 107 drone license when their exemptions expire.
Is a Section 333 exemption better than a Part 107 license?
Despite the complexity of petitioning for a Section 3333 exemption, there are still many drone operators who are willing to go through the process. What are the advantages of a Section 333 exemption that cannot be gained by a Part 107 license? And how much harder is it to get the exemption?
Pros of Section 333
1. Automatic compliance with Part 107
The FAA recognized that the passing of the Part 107 rules suddenly put those who had secured Section 333 exemptions at a disadvantage, since the Part 107 rules were generally less restrictive. To avoid having these people apply for another certification, drone pilots who had Section 333 exemptions were given the benefit to operate under the Part 107 restrictions. This means that most Section 333 exemption holders could effectively switch between Part 107 and Section 333 depending on the situation.
2. Can fly drones above 55 lbs.
One scenario that is non-negotiable according to the Part 107 restrictions pertains to the use of drones heavier than 55 lbs. This may be necessary for high-end commercial applications such as mapping surveys that use heavy payloads mounted on large and powerful drones. For professional drone pilots that need to use such drones, there is no option but to get a Section 333 exemption.
Cons of Section 333
1. More application requirements
A huge advantage of applying for a Part 107 license is the easier application process. All it takes for anyone to sign up for the Part 107 knowledge test is to be at least 16 years of age, have a valid government-issued ID, be of sound physical and mental state, and pay the $150 testing fee. Of course, you also need to pass the knowledge test.
What makes the application process for a Section 333 exemption is the requirement to provide a detailed account of the drone you will be flying, the drone operations you intend to conduct, and the time and place for your intended operations. Under Part 107, the FAA does not care about the training you have been through, or the lack thereof. Although not stated explicitly, you have a better chance of getting a Section 333 petition approved if the PIC has an airman certificate or has been through a formal training program.
The Section 333 exemption also requires that the PIC be of sound physical and mental state, and this must be supported by an official medical certificate. Under Part 107, a pilot’s state of well-being is determined only by self-assessment.
2. Longer approval period
The approval and vetting process for a Part 107 license has been streamlined due to its lessened requirements, shortening the approval period to around 1 or 2 months. On the other hand, the FAA recommend a lead time of at least 120 days for a Section 333 petition before the date that the exemption will be needed.
The complicated set of requirements of a petition typically results in the FAA having to contact the petitioner to ask for additional details. This leads to more delays and an even longer approval period. There have been accounts of Section 333 petitions getting held for up to 6 months before getting approved.
Over the years, legislation regarding drone use has been developed, repealed, and revised numerous times. The landscape of commercial drone use, as well the ever-evolving technology, means that lawmakers often must play catch-up. For a long time, Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was the only recognized authority when it came to drone use. However, the introduction of the FAA Part 107 rules for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles made the matter a little more complicated.
Right now, multiple standards are still set in place and are being implemented for different types of commercial drone applications. However, it is clear that the FAA intends to consolidate all existing standards under the Part 107 rules in the next couple of years. Just as in the last few years, we expect major changes to drone legislation in 2019 and beyond.