FAA Raises Altitude Ceiling on 333 Waivers to 400 Feet

WASHINGTON—The Federal Aviation Administration has raised the unmanned aircraft “blanket” altitude authorization for Sec. 333 exemption holders and government aircraft operators to 400 feet. Previously, the agency had put in place a nationwide Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for such flights up to 200 feet. In a separate item, the Associated Press is reporting that recommendations have been submitted to the FAA for rules allowing drone flight over people—something that is now prohibited.

The FAA can take or leave the recommendations, which are said to create four categories of regulation for flying drones over people. The first involves drones weighing less than one-half pounds. These small unmanned aerial vehicles would be allowed to fly in an unrestricted manor if manufacturers demonstrate that there would be no more than 1 percent chance of serious injury at maximum force impact.

A second category of most quadcopters would be subjected to FAA discretion, also with a threshold of 1 percent chance of serious injury. A third category of working drones would be allowed minimal flight over people—generally operators—and none over crowds, at a 30 percent injury threshold. The fourth category would provide for sustained flight over people with a 30 percent injury threshold. (See “APNewsBreak: Move to OK commercial drone flights over people.”)

The new Sec. 333 policy allows small unmanned aircraft—operated as other than model aircraft (i.e. commercial use)—to fly up to 400 feet anywhere in the country except restricted airspace and other areas, such as major cities, where the agency prohibits UAS operations.

The FAA expects the move will reduce the workload for COA applications for industry UAS operators, government agencies and the FAA’s own Air Traffic Organization. The agency also estimates the move will reduce the need for individual COAs by 30 to 40 percent. Other provisions of an FAA authorization, such as registering the UAS and making sure pilots have the proper certification, still apply.

Under the blanket COA, the FAA will permit flights at or below 400 feet for UAS operators with a Sec. 333 exemption for aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds and for government UAS operations. Operators must fly under daytime Visual Flight Rules, keep the UAS within visual line of sight of the pilot and stay certain distances away from airports or heliports:

  • Five nautical miles from an airport having an operational control tower; or
  • Three nautical mile from an airport with a published instrument flight procedure, but not an operational tower; or
  • Two nautical mile from an airport without a published instrument flight procedure or an operational tower; or
  • Two nautical mile from a heliport with a published instrument flight procedure.