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FAA Quietly Revokes Section 333 Closed-set Exemptions

Closed-set operators may not know they’re flying illegally

January 20, 2017

On Nov. 14, 2016, the FAA posted a notice to the Public Register of an amendment to current Section 333 exemptions for closed-set operations. Under the Section 333 framework, closed-set exemptions allowed for operations over people — this amendment revokes that allowance.

Shutting down the sets

The notice opens with an explanation of why individual operators and companies holding Section 333 exemptions for closed-set operations were not personally notified.

“The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has determined that good cause exists for not publishing a summary of the petition in the Federal Register because this amendment to the exemption would not set a precedent, and any delay in acting on this petition would be detrimental to the petitioner,” it says.

With regard to the rule changes, what appears to be the key phrasing is tucked in a footnote: “For the purposes of this exemption, previously-issued exemptions for ‘closed-set filming and television production’ are considered ‘aerial data collection’ under this definition.”

This change of wording is key. In the Section 333 era, closed-set operations were the only way that operators could legally fly drones over people. Now, redefined simply as aerial data collection, the ability to fly drones over people is revoked.

According to the FAA’s Section 333 database, 590 closed-set authorizations have been granted. Among the affected companies and organizations are NBC Universal, the University of Miami, CNN, Wild Rabbit Productions, and NFL Films.

Coming in for the landing?

CNN currently holds the only Part 107 waiver for “Operations Over Human Beings.” Taking the Section 333 amendment into account, CNN’s waiver makes it one of very few companies, organizations, or individuals that may legally fly drones over people under any circumstance. A handful of companies that received one-year renewals on their Section 333 exemptions are also unaffected by the rule change.

This amendment marks a significant step back in the FAA’s progress toward a rule for widespread drone operations over people. The FAA announced its intent to release a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking before the end of 2016, but failed to meet that deadline.

At CES this year, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta was expected to give an update on the NPRM for flights over people. Instead, Huerta cited safety and security concerns.

“We will be looking to our industry partners to develop more ingenious ways to ensure drones can fly over people without sacrificing safety or security,” he said.

Drone360 reached out to the FAA with questions on various aspects of the Section 333 amendment notice, but the administration declined to comment.

The Commercial Drone Alliance, a non-profit group dedicated to supporting commercial drone end-users, urges operators affected by this amendment to contact the FAA directly to ask for a restoration of their permissions.

Check out the current commercial drone regulations here.
Featured image: ©iStock.com/BluIz60