Regulatory

Here’s Why Most Drone Rule Waiver Applications with the FAA Fail

By Nick Zazulia | August 7, 2018
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Image from video uploaded on YouTube by James Vincent

Most requests for a waiver to the FAA's drone regulations are denied. Only 16% of the 11,345 applications that have been reviewed this year have been approved.

Nearly 8,000 of those rejections were due to incomplete information, according to FAA Aviation Safety Inspector Kevin Morris, who hosted an online forum Aug. 7 on applying for operational waivers. Another 800 made "an insufficient safety case."

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More than half of waiver requests are for exemptions to the daytime operation rule, and the denial rate on those is even higher, he said.

The biggest issue is people not reading the requirements well enough and simply leaving information out or not being specific enough in their applications, Morris said.

"Don't make assumptions," he said. In other words, don't say, "I'm going to operate the drone below treetops," because trees can be different heights. Give the height in feet.

Don't write, "I'm going to use a system to put lights on this drone," Morris said. That leaves the application reviewer with questions as to what system, what kind of lights, their visual range, whether they strobe and if they are colored, he added.

Specificity is necessary when filling out a waiver application and omission of any information the FAA requires is grounds for refusal, he said.

The need for specificity applies to the drone specifications and intended operations, both of which should be spelled out in any waiver request, Morris said. Some applicants have tried to use the initial waiver request as a negotiating tactic by asking for more leeway than needed in hopes of scoring approval for less complex operation. That betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the process, Morris said. FAA reviewers can only react to what is in the application and will not haggle with the applicant.

Morris also said a lot of applicants make the mistake of confusing waivers with approvals.

"Be careful of what you're applying for," he said. "Waivers are hard to obtain. You're telling them you want access to the airspace without air traffic control permission. Typically, you want access with air traffic control permission."

That entire process will be changing soon, as low-altitude authorization and notification capability (LAANC) spreads to more of the U.S. by September. The ability to request and get approval for operations in real-time should decrease the need for applications to the FAA, he said.

“Typically speaking, if you are going to be operating below the ceiling, and LAANC is active in your area, that’s going to be the best way," Morris said. "If it’s something where you need to make a safety case, where it’s more complex and you’re going to be going in and out of class C airspace, go through the dronezone portal with an application."

LAANC won't immediately be available everywhere or for everyone, and it won't be able to handle all kinds of operations. There is hope that filtering out more of those "simple" operational requests with LAANC will expedite the FAA's ability to deal with the applications. As of now, applications are required 90 days ahead of an operation. Most reviews take under a month to process a request, but some complex cases take longer.

“Those folks who follow those guidelines usually get approved, or at the very least we send them back a request for more information," Morris said. "It’s the folks who don’t do that who usually get denied.”

The FAA's application instructions and waiver safety explanation guidelines are available online. Go to the dronezone portal to submit an application.

This was originally published in sister publication Avionics.

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