Being commercial drone ops based in the UK we can tend to take our regulations and therefore our opportunities for granted.  We can perhaps grumble about slow responses and the bureaucracy – however we should take stock of our American cousins circumstances.  For they have had a bruising experience over the past ten years.  Flying drones commercially in the USA can be a testing challenge.

The UK’s CAA has installed a route to market and regulations for us all to adhere – thereby allowing us to carry out our work safely and practically.   The USA’s FAA has taken a much more ponderous response – one which has still not installed a practical framework nearly a decade after the CAA managed to get their ducks in a line.

Requirements

The FAA as of last year has put in place a stop gap that allows operators to apply for a 333 Exemption to operate their unmanned aircraft legally.  So long as they comply with punitive requirements.  The core requirements are:
1) The pilot in command of the drone must hold a pilots licence (or airman’s certificate) for manned aircraft.
2) They cannot be operated above 200ft AGL unless a site specific application (which takes three weeks) is applied for.
3) The aircraft must be at least 500ft from non-participants during the flight operation – unless barriers can be erected which protect them from aircraft and debris in the event of an accident (netting for example).
These rules allow access to the National Airspace for flying drones commercially.  Many of the previously illegal operators who have been working commercially for the past 6+ years are now able to move out of the “grey” areas.  This has been invaluable for them.  However it does ensure high barriers to entry – whereas the drones are becoming easier and safer to use.
The FAA are expected to announce new legislation later this year.  However it is widely anticipated to postpone/delay their submission yet again.
In the interim anyone wishing to keep flying drones commercially in the USA with drones will require to apply for a 333 exemption.

Costs and lead-times for flying drones commercially in the USA:

Here is a run down on the costs and time-frames:
  • Initial application – if handled by legal firm ($1500 and two weeks to compile)
  • Time frame upon application – 3-4months for approval
  • Approval for changes to blanket approval – each specific site exemption – approx 3-4 weeks
Another key consideration for operators based outside of the USA is the requirement for any organisation based overseas to already hold an exemption from their National Aviation Association – this complicates matters as very few NAA’s still operate their drone regulations on a traditional aviation exemption basis – as they have their own specific drone rules.  Any drones registered with another aviation authority will also add complexity to any application.
As such you may need to register your company in the USA and submit tax returns for any work undertaken.  This certainly puts a shiver down my spine.  It many circumstances it is likely more beneficial to work with a local operator.  Drone Aerial Ops have a network of US based operators who we can recommend to suit your production requirements.

Further information

If you do wish to acquire a 333 Exemption or need any more guidance on the current Drone regulations in the USA – I recommend contacting Antonelli Law for leading legal advice.  They offer a range of packages for registering and applying for 333 exemptions.  You can also view a webinar given by Jeffrey Antonelli to UK Trade and Investment here.
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