Now that the FAA’s has adopted a fast-track process for approving some UAVs for commercial use, the number of firms obtaining waivers under Section 333 is nudging towards 300. Amid the reams of paper (or rather digital paper) involved in such bureaucratic fervor lies a quiet, yet intrepid battle among groups representing several interests.
You see, before granting a Section 333 exemption, the FAA must allow a period for public comment on any application. Presumably, regulators may choose to take those comments into consideration before granting a waiver. As these battle lines harden, a trend is emerging: a cluster of groups tends to emerge to both champion and challenge many Section 333 applications. Here’s a look at some of those organizations and why they say they want to see commercial drones fly high or stay on the ground.
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International
The AUVSI may be the best friend a drone firm could ever have. Dedicated “exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community,” the 7,500-member group has persistently defended several Section 333 applications. Last year, the group sent a letter of support to the FAA (download PDF) bolstering Amazon’s successful bid to garner an experimental airworthiness certificate which will allow the online retailer to fly drones for development and crew training. “We hope the FAA uses any and all means to allow Amazon to test their systems domestically in a safe and responsible manner,” the AUVSI letter stated. “The FAA should actively work with Amazon and others to look for ways to allow for limited commercial use of UAS today, and get on with rulemaking.”
The Air Line Pilots Association
Chances are, if a Section 333 application includes an opposing comment, ALPA’s fingerprints will be all over it. The union, representing more than 51,000 pilots, has offered numerous objections across a wide swath of apps, ranging from legitimate safety concerns to points that some would label nit-picking. In general, the FAA acknowledges the group’s objections but usually points out how a specific waiver stipulation will address the concerns.
For example, after Texas-based Aviation Unmanned submitted a successful waiver plea earlier this year, ALPA stated in its public comment of opposition “there must be means both to ensure that the sUAS remains within the defined airspace and to ensure that the hazard of other aircraft intruding on the operation is mitigated.” Not really a big deal, the FAA pointed out that since, like most Section 333 exemptions, Aviation Unmanned would be required to operate below 400 feet. “The FAA believes the limitations under which the petitioner will operate are sufficient mitigations to this risk so that the operations will not adversely affect safety.”
While it’s perfectly rational to push for increased safety in the UAV field, ALPA seems to be obsessed with a non-issue involving lithium polymer batteries – an issue which drone experts and the FAA say is not an actual danger. In numerous public comments opposing Section 333’s, ALPA will often claim “the UAS’s lithium polymer batteries have numerous associated fire and explosion hazards and that the safe carriage of the batteries and the mitigations in place for known risks should be addressed.” Although the group does reference a federal study showing some li-po batteries could cause a fire hazard, the FAA counters that those type of batteries are rarely used in smaller UAVs. “The referenced study was primarily conducted to determine how certain battery cells react in a fire situation aboard manned airplanes….given the size of the battery and the operating conditions of the UAS, the FAA concludes that the use of a lithium polymer battery will not pose an undue safety risk for the proposed operations.” And yet ALPA continues to raise the alarm on a problem that does not exist for UAVs but ironically for the planes ALPA members fly.
Small UAV Coalition
The David to ALPA’s Goliath, the Coalition advocates for “law and policy changes to permit the operation of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) beyond the line-of-sight, with varying degrees of autonomy, for commercial, consumer, recreational and philanthropic purposes.” In short, they like drones. The Coalition can often be found fighting side by side with AUVSI in defending waiver permits. In a March filing, the Coalition backed San Diego Gas & Electric Company’s successful proposal to operate a UAS to conduct aerial inspections of its electric and gas facilities. The Coalition argued for minimal and appropriate regulations given the utility company’s limited drone usage plan. Specifically, the group urged the FAA in this case to “grant relief from the requirement to hold an airman certificate [or] at a minimum, the FAA should provide an exception from the training and testing requirements.” Although the petition did win the day, the Coalition lost that specific battle as the FAA countered that “neither Section 333, nor the FAA’s exemption authority allows the FAA to exempt pilots from the statutory requirement to hold an airman certificate.”
National Agricultural Aviation Association
A group whose stake in the drone game could be economic, the NAAA represents approximately 1,800 members – mostly pilots licensed as professional commercial aerial applicators who use aircraft to “enhance food, fiber and biofuel production, protect forestry and control health-threatening pests.” Manned aerial applicators (crop dusters) could be an industry that gets dusted from the economic landscape with the rise of unmanned drones, which may explain why the NAAA so often teams up with ALPA to oppose drone waivers. As reported earlier this year in DRONELIFE: “The industry is going down kicking and screaming, spending thousands lobbying against drones and filing court briefs trying to keep unmanned aircraft in a legal gray area.”
Jason is a longstanding contributor to DroneLife with an avid interest in all things tech. He focuses on anti-drone technologies and the public safety sector; police, fire, and search and rescue.
Beginning his career as a journalist in 1996, Jason has since written and edited thousands of engaging news articles, blog posts, press releases and online content.
Subscribe to DroneLife here.