Rather Good Guides®

Documentation the way it ought to be.

Rich Niewiroski Jr.


The FAA Grants sUAS Movie-Makers
Exemptions To Operate Under

Section 333 of FMRA 2012



Image: Courtesy of Bruce Ely


Well, it has been a long time coming, but as of September, 2014, the FAA has been issuing exemptions to movie makers under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA 2012)that will allow these organization to operate specific small unmanned systems — multi-rotor helicopters — above closed movie sets to shoot footage for movies.


That’s the theory anyway. In practice there is an inconvenient truth — the way that the exemption requests were written, augmented with some of the FAA’s additional restrictions, actually makes it impossible for the movie makers to comply with the requirements of the restrictions. In addition to these impossible-to-comply-with restrictions  (and act surprised at this point), there are also some restrictions that will be really burdensome to comply with, some that are downright impractical to comply with, and some that just will be conveniently not complied with. Apart from that, the FAA’s batting a 1,000.


There is a Rather Good Guide® to the FAA’s Exemptions for Movie Makers that spills the beans on this unfortunate situation in what we hope are exquisite details. You are welcome to download this at no charge (just enter 0 dollars and you will not have to enter credit card details).


Just in case you don’t want to do that, what follows are the headlines —but  you really will need to look at a sample Exemption Request document and a sample FAA’s Exemption grant for Movie Maker’s documents, even if you don’t want to download the Rather Good Guide®.


The other thing you need to bear in mind is that each company that submitted an exemption request supplied  an Operator’s Manual (OM) that both described the multi-rotor copters and the operational procedures they would use (in effect, they supplied two manuals but the FAA views them as a single document).


These Operator Manuals are considered proprietary, contain trade secrets, and cannot be produced even in response to a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request. They’re secret. Worse yet, in some cases the FAA’s Exemption adds clauses to specific requirements like, “or in the manner described in the Operator’s Manual,” so we, the people, are left blinking in the sunlight and wondering what the FAA’s restriction actually means. This is not a propitious way for the FAA to get into the sUAS business by calving intellectual icebergs where most of the important information is hidden below the waterline. It does, of course, serve to act as a barrier to entry to other people wishing to get exemptions -- they will never know what secrets served to persuade the FAA that all was well.


What follows are the “highlights” — if that’s not an inapposite term in this context — of the FAA’s requirements. The Rather Good Guide identified above has all the details.


Setting the Scene

The overarching requirements specified by the exemption are that the sUAS will operate above a closed movie set, weigh less than 55 lbs, fly no faster than a ground speed of 50 knots, operate below 400 feet above ground, within visual line of sight (VLOS — which is not actually well defined [see note 1]) during daylight hours, and when the horizontal visibility is 1,500 meters or more. No flight can last more than 30 minutes and the sUAS must land when 25% battery power remains. Members of the public will be kept outside the “sterile” movie set (occupied by professionals who have signed liability releases) and at least 500 feet away from the sUAS horizontally.


The Pilot in Command (PIC) will have a private pilot’s license for manned aircraft, a Class III medical, and have completed a biennial flight review (BFR) — the medical and BFR are required to continue to fly manned aircraft. The PIC must be accompanied by a Visual Observer (VO), trained by the movie-making organization to, um, well, visually observe. The VO’s role is not defined by the FAA (unless there’s more in the Operator’s Secret Manual) beyond helping keep the PIC keep the sUAS in VLOS (whatever that turns out to mean), and to be able to communicate with the PIC by voice (the FAA denied the idea of texting).


Apparently Impossible Restrictions

There are several restrictions that the FAA imposes that seem to be impossible to comply with:


Return home and land on loss of command and control link, or GPS signal, or be recovered according to the Operator’s Secret Manual. Errr…just how can the sUAS return home if the GPS signal has failed? Of course, the “out” is that perhaps the Secret Manual has some way of “recovering” the sUAS other than having it  autoland where it is when it loses the GPS signal.


The “sUAS must abort the flight in the event of unpredicted obstacles in accordance" with the Operator’s Secret Manual. The questions are how does the sUAS determine (a) obstacles, (b) that they are unpredicted, and (c) what does the Operator’s Manual say about the sUAS’s capabilities?


The sUAS operator must request air traffic control to issue a Certificate of Waiver or Certificate of Authorization from 72 to 48 hours ahead of flight operations. If the weather delays flight operations (as it often may), the sUAS operator could get stuck in an apparently never-ending loop, applying to air traffic control each time flight operations are scrubbed — and delaying at least 48 hours from the time the weather scrubs the flight operations — only to find that the weather is again bad 48 hours later.


Really Burdensome Requirements

These requirements are sufficiently burdensome that they may get ignored sometimes:


The need for a PIC to have a pilot’s license to fly an sUAS in Class G airspace (below 400 feet and away from airports) would ordinarily be viewed as over-reaching (neither Canada nor the UK require such licenses)— but the problem is that the petitioners themselves suggested this to the FAA in their petition, so the FAA appears to have played along with a “as you suggested it,” attitude. The only apparently useful benefit of a private pilot’s license appears to be some knowledge of aeronautics, some information how air traffic control operates, and some knowledge of aviation weather — all of which could more easily be attained by ground school. In all other cases, flying an sUAS is a complete disjunct out-of-body experience compared to the seat-of-the-pants feeling of flying a light aircraft, glider, or helicopter. A class III medical is a good idea, but is unlikely to detect the propensity of a pilot to drop dead at a critical flight moment.


Any airspace violation, horizontal or vertical, must be reported to the FAA’s UAS Integration office within 24 hours. Any accident must be reported to the NTSB. No further flights are permitted until the airspace violation or accident is reviewed and flights are re-authorized by the FAA UAS Integration Office. Thus, a flight to 450 feet above ground, or a tip-over on landing (which breaks one or more propellers) means that no further flights can occur until the FAA has re-authorized them. There is no indication of the time it will take for the FAA to re-authorize flights, but I don’t think we are talking within minutes.


Before every flight, the PIC must perform a full pre-flight inspection. That means shooting video, landing to replace a battery, and getting back in the air ASAP is just not going to happen. It will require at least five minutes to preflight the aircraft — or longer. Somehow the pressures of a movie set seem incompatible with this.

Any on-set maintenance that affects the sUAS's performance or flight critical components must be followed by a demonstration test flight. That means even replacing a propeller (which takes about 30 seconds) will result in a demonstration flight. Oh, and the PIC who makes the demonstration flight must also update the extensive records that need to be kept for the sUAS and all of its components.

The PIC cannot fly the sUAS from any “moving device or vehicle.” There go any shots where the PIC is in a boat or a golf cart, tracking along behind the sUAS. Both of these are pretty routine shots now — certain sUAS camera gimbals even have special “boat modes” so that the can be powered up on a boat.


Unnecessarily Burdensome Requirements

And just to finish off, there are several requirements that seem unnecessarily burdensome and, as a result, we suspect that some corners might be cut by the operators when exposed to the on-set demands of movie budgets, weather, and directors having bad hair days.


All the flight critical components need to have serial numbers, and, if the manufacturer does not provide maintenance, overhaul, replacement inspection and life-time limits, then the sUAS operator needs to figure these out and include the information in the secret Operator’s Manual. This is going to be a huge burden on the sUAS operator both initially, while this data is worked out, but also operationally, because the life-time requirements mean that for a single flight, the operator must record which eight propellers, motors, booms, speed controllers, flight control, navigation control and GPS boards, and batteries were used — and for how much flight time during a day that might involve 50 flights or more. This will require significant paperwork and administration.


No night time operations are permitted. Curiously, night time is the easiest time for the PIC to actually see the location and orientation of the aircraft (which have high-intensity LEDs on various booms to aid in pilot orientation).


No daytime flights when the horizontal visibility is less than 1,500 meters. Well, apart from the sudden switch to metric units, it remains to be seen how the PIC and the VO will actually assess the horizontal visibility on a movie set — just seeing horizontally 1,500 meters seems like it might be rather unusual (and ignores the issue of how one estimates 1,500 meters too!)


Having a VO assisting the pilot maintain the undefined VLOS is a nice idea, but, bear in mind that no human sense is actually accurate enough to permit the VO to provide accurate information, nor is there an adequate frame of left/right reference between the VO and the PIC. Thus the VO’s role may well end up being more one of crowd control or of making utterances like: “watch out, there is another aircraft about 20 degrees to your right but I cannot tell how high up it is nor how far away it is.” The problem is compounded because, if the nose of the sUAS (boom #1 for a multi-rotor helicopter) is pointing back at the PIC — “left” and “right” are highly ambiguous — is the VO referring to sUAS's left or right or PIC's left or right? More to the point, should the PIC take evasive action and if so what?


Additional Requirements

As I mentioned at the outset, there are some additional requirements that are at best suspect, and at worst, will probably just be met with a Nelsonian blind eye in the hope that the FAA could never prove what happened post hoc. These remaining issues are identified in more detail in the Rather Good Guide®.


Note 1: Lackadaisical Definition

The FAA has been somewhat lackadaisical in its definitions of  “visual line of sight.” This is especially surprising as the definition is flight critical for sUASs being flown with the PIC on the ground and equipped with just frail human senses to keep control of the sUAS.


For example in the Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, (June 18, 2014) it states “[b]ased on the plain language of the statute, the FAA interprets this requirement to mean that: (1) the aircraft must be visible at all times to the operator; (2) that the operator must use his or her own  natural vision (which includes vision corrected by standard eyeglasses or contact lenses) to observe the aircraft; […].” See page 8, para. 3. The pivotal omission from this “plain language" is that the pilot (“operator”) just has to be able to see the aircraft but does not need to see it clearly enough to be able to operate it safely — even if the aircraft is a distant speck in the sky the PIC would still be in compliance with this definition. However, on September 9, 2014,  the FAA published Public Guidance for Petitions for Exemption Filed under Section 333 (page 3) which redefines “visual line of sight” more rigorously as: "unaided (corrective lenses and/or sunglasses excepted) visual contact between a pilot in command and an unmanned aircraft sufficient to maintain safe operational control of the aircraft, know its location, and be able to scan the airspace in which it is operating to see and avoid other air traffic or objects aloft or on the ground.” (Emphasis added.)


This new definition, in contrast to the other definitions in the Public Guidance document which have citations to their origins, does not appear to be part of any regulation or public law and lacks any citation to other documents. Nevertheless this definition actually makes significantly more sense. If a PIC is to fly an sUAS safely the PIC must know the orientation of the sUAS — all pilot inputs are relative to the nose of the sUAS. If the PIC loses sUAS orientation and is flying it manually, the PIC will likely lose control of the sUAS in just a few seconds.


But which definition of VLOS is binding on Section 333 Exemption grantees? The Exemption grant says only that: "The UA must be operated within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the PIC at all times. This requires the PIC to be able to use human vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses, as specified on the PIC’s FAA-issued medical certificate.” See e.g. Exemption Grant to Aerial MOB LLC, page 4, para. 4. (As a nit, this language does not allow the PIC to use sunglasses even though the Public Guidance document specifically allows them.)


Only the FAA knows which definition is applicable, but only the one in the Public Guidance document makes technical sense for safe VLOS operations.

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