FAA Authorizations and Waivers: 3 Big Questions (And the Answers)

The enactment of Part 107 late this summer regularized commercial drone operation in the US. For drone operators who are working in remote areas at a distance from airports and entirely within Part 107’s guidelines, a Part 107 Remote Pilot’s Certificate may be all they need. But for most operators, waivers and authorizations are a part of life.

The FAA has done its best to make the waiver process as painless as possible – offering an online portal to submit requests for waivers and airspace authorizations. But the regulations, explanations, fact sheets and FAQs can be confusing: many drone operators are left unsure of when to apply and how to be successful in the process. Here are 3 big questions about FAA Airspace authorizations and Part 107 waivers – with the answers.

#1. What’s the difference between a Part 107 waiver and an airspace authorization request? While the two are related – and the application portal is the same – drone operators should be careful that they don’t apply for more than they need, causing them time and headaches later as their application is rejected. Specifically, a waiver refers to the section of the Small UAS Rule Part 107.205, which outlines the list of regulations subject to waiver:

  • 107.25 – Operation from a moving vehicle or aircraft. However, no waiver of this provision will be issued to allow the carriage of property of another by aircraft for compensation or hire.
  • 107.29 – Daylight operation.
  • 107.31 – Visual line of sight aircraft operation. However, no waiver of this provision will be issued to allow the carriage of property of another by aircraft for compensation or hire.
  • 107.33 – Visual observer.
  • 107.35 – Operation of multiple small unmanned aircraft systems.
  • 107.37(a) – Yielding the right of way.
  • 107.39 – Operation over people.
  • 107.41 – Operation in certain airspace.
  • 107.51 – Operating limitations for small unmanned aircraft.

An authorization refers only to part 107.41: operation in certain airspace. If you are operating entirely under the Part 107 regulations except for flying in Class G airspace, then you don’t need a waiver: just an airspace authorization: “If you can comply with all of part 107 (without needing a waiver), but need to operate within certain controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, or E surface area), then only request airspace authorization, per section 107.41,” say FAA instructions.

#2. How long does it take to get a waiver or an authorization approved? The FAA’s database shows that 57 waivers were approved in the month of December: but all of them were for daylight operations. The agency says that the time required to process a waiver will vary depending upon the level of complexity: “The FAA expects that the amount of data and analysis required as part of the application will be proportional to the specific relief that is requested. Similarly, the FAA anticipates that the time required for it to make a determination regarding waiver requests will vary based on the complexity of the request,” say the application instructions.

The amount of time that it takes to receive an airspace authorization is a sore point with many commercial operators, who complain that they may lose jobs to operators willing to fly illegally while they wait for authorizations. The agency recommends that operators apply for airspace authorizations 90 days in advance: but comments that the agency will “strive to complete review and adjudication of waivers and airspace authorizations within 90 days; however, the time required for the FAA to make a determination regarding waiver/airspace authorization requests will vary based on the complexity of the
request.” Questions addressed to an FAA spokesperson on the subject at the Commercial UAV Expo this fall received a response indicating that the agency was aware of the problem: recent anecdotal reports on operator forums indicate that some operators are receiving authorizations within the 90 day timeframe. Operators depending upon authorizations for specific jobs should be very sure that authorization is required, fill out the application completely, and submit the request as far in advance as possible.

#3. Why didn’t my waiver get approved? Back in October, the FAA published an article stating that the agency had at that time approved 31 waivers and 81 airspace authorizations: but they had rejected 71 waiver applications and a whopping 854 airspace authorization requests. The most common reason was insufficient data. Applicants must pay attention to what the FAA is looking for: evidence that your request can be granted safely. The FAA has clearly laid out the performance-based standards here; successful applicants will address each point. “Without a detailed description of how the applicant intends to meet these standards the FAA can’t determine if a waiver is possible,” says the article. “Operators should select only the Part 107 regulations that need to be waived for the proposed operation. Applicants also should respond promptly to any request we make for additional information. If the agency does not receive a response after 30 days, it will withdraw the request.”

Other reasons that your request may have been rejected? It’s possible that you didn’t need a waiver or an authorization: read the regulations carefully to determine whether or not authorization is required. And keep in mind that before December 5, the FAA was not accepting any requests for authorization to fly in Class B airspace.

While government regulations will never be as clear and simple as most operators would like, the drone waiver process should get easier with time. As more waivers are approved, and the related safety data amassed, the approval process should become more streamlined. The Part 107 document explains this:

Like information collected from 333 exemptions, the FAA plans to collect useful data derived from waiver application and issuance such as what part 107 provisions have the greatest number of waiver requests, what technology is being utilized to enhance safety, and what safe operating practices are most effective. To evaluate the effectiveness of operating practices, the FAA plans to compare the mitigations imposed by waiver grants against accident and incident reports and observations made as part of the FAA’s oversight.

But while operators wait for further regulations to reduce the need for waivers, they’ll have to work through the process. Fortunately, the drone community is there to help.