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The FAA Has a Waiver Problem – and They Know It.

During a discussion panel at this week’s Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas, FAA attorney Dean Griffiths revealed Part 107 waiver statistics – and they don’t look good.  As of last month, the FAA had received 912 requests for Part 107 waivers – and had issued 23.  They had disapproved or withdrawn only 36.

The fact that they have approved only about 2.5% of the requests – and processed only 6%, if you add in those disapproved – was no surprise to some drone operators in the audience, many of whom have lost jobs to people willing to work outside of the regulations while they wait for their waivers.   When Griffiths was asked what the FAA plans to do to remedy the situation, he said that the agency was aware of the problem and had taken some actions to fix it, including releasing more information to ensure that applications are filled out correctly.  “We recognize the need to do something,” said Griffiths.

The top three waiver requests were for night operations, often critical in thermography work; operations over people; and flight beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS.)

The numbers of requests for airspace authorization that have been granted were also stunningly low.  Of 1,741 requests – over half of which were for access to Class C or D airspace – only 34 were approved.

Griffiths says that the FAA has several key initiatives in 2017.  In addition to engagement with the drone advisory committee (DAC) and rulemaking initiatives, the FAA will work on the development of a single online portal for all types of users; streamlined systems of data sharing; the integration of drones into the air traffic control environment (UTM); and the legislative requirements outlined in the most recent FAA Reauthorization Act, including the development of reliable counter UAS measures.  Griffiths says that the development of an online portal should improve the waiver process.  “Something that will help is when we do get the unified portal together and automate those systems,” he said.

The FAA plans several rulemaking activities, including regularizing drone operations over people – which FAA chief administrator Michael Huerta has promised before the end of this calendar year -and other expanded operations.  The agency also plans the formation of an unmanned aircraft system safety team, designed to provide data-based recommendations for safety to the drone industry.

Griffiths emphasized that the agency recognizes the need to move quickly while still maintaining safety, and is working towards integration of drones in the airspace – but acknowledged that it is a long process.  “We’re committed to UAS integration,” said Griffiths.  “…. We have a ways to go.”

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