1,500+ Drone Pilots Speak Their Mind About U.S. Drone Regulations

BY Alan Perlman
4 May 2016
Drone Regulations Market Research Survey

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In the United States, the drone / sUAS industry is changing more quickly than ever before.

But you already knew that.

First, a quick regulatory primer from our friends over at AUVSI:

Since Sept. 2014, the FAA began awarding grants of exemption to companies looking to use unmanned aircraft systems to support their business. This process, allowed by Section 333 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, is currently the only way for businesses to circumvent the airworthiness requirement and other requirements that were established for manned aircraft. In the 2012 Act, Congress also mandated that the FAA develop rules for integration of UAS into the national airspace, however these rules, which would provide anyone who follows the rules access to the airspace, are not expected until at least June 2016. Until then, the Section 333 exemption process is the easiest way for businesses to save time, money and lives using UAS.

This summer, the FAA is expected to shake things up by publishing the finalized version of Part 107, originally released as a ‘Notice for Proposed Rulemaking’ to the public for comment back in February 2015.

And people have mixed feelings about this.

Many believe the dangers imposed by sUAS are being over-exaggerated and not fully understood. Others recognize the challenge of safely integrating thousands of new UAS pilots into the national airspace, and what that means for the aviation industry.

For these reasons and more, the UAV Coach team put together a survey on sUAS/drone regulations in the U.S.

Our primary goal?

To explore the habits and opinions of U.S. drone pilots interested in operating commercially.

The survey was conducted over a period of 30 days in March/April 2016, and the below data comes from 1530 unique survey participants. We were blown away with how many people took part!

No money / rewards were given in exchange for survey participation.

Notable data and our team’s insights are shared below.

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sUAS Regulation Survey Data

Let’s start with our first question:

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We had a healthy mix of recreational and professional pilots. About 22% have applied for their Section 333 Exemption, 19% plan to submit their paperwork soon, and 55% don’t plan to.

Then, we asked the 55% who don’t plan to submit their Section 333 Exemption paperwork a follow-up question:

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We also posed this question to the pilots who have received their Section 333 Exemptions:

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Yikes.

Most pilots surveyed had to wait more than six months to receive their 333 exemption.

If you’re still waiting on your Section 333 Exemption or planning to file soon, those above time ranges are a big consideration, particularly with Part 107 on deck. Does it make sense to file at this point? A lot of companies are asking themselves this question.

We also asked pilots who have gone through or who are planning to soon go through the Section 333 Exemption Process about Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COAs). In order to operate an unmanned aircraft commercially in the U.S., here’s what’s required:

  • a Section 333 grant of exemption,
  • a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA),
  • an aircraft registered with the FAA, and
  • a pilot with an FAA airman certificate

While Section 333 grants of exemption are automatically issued with a “blanket” 400-foot nationwide COA with certain restrictions around airports, restricted airspace, and other densely populated areas, an operator who wants to operate outside the parameters of the blanket COA can apply for a separate COA specific to the airspace required for their operation. Applications for these COAs must be submitted through the UAS Civil COA Portal.

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While it was nice to see that 51% of pilots have adopted the blanket COA parameters as they were likely intended, I was pretty shocked to see such a big percentage, 38%, who didn’t even know what a COA was.

That’s something the industry still needs help with. Proper education and training.

For those of you interested in COA timelines, here’s some data about waiting times for successful COA requests.

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The next question drew some interesting responses:

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9% of drone pilots weren’t clear on sUAS flight communications, and the ones who reached out to an airport, heliport, or air traffic control tower shared their different experiences:

It was a small, private airport in an aviation community. It was slightly difficult to reach someone, but when I did, permission was granted rather easily.

I have found most airports and ATC are very accommodating as long as you know what you need to know and take it seriously. I have yet to run into an issue notifying an airport.

There is a state police heliport 4.3 miles from where I wanted to fly. I called them and notified them, but they did not seem to know why I called them nor what they were supposed to do.

It was a private airport operator that appreciated me calling him, but he really wasn’t concerned.

Better to call the airport than tower. The tower has their hands full directing real airplanes. Drones are a distraction and take the tower folks away from doing their job. The tower should not have people that answer phones. Imagine if people really did call the tower when inside the 5 miles.

It was easy just called and they said no problem whatsoever… Appreciated the call and gave me a direct number to call in the future

The airports I contacted were very small rural airports. No one answered the phones when I called and no one returned my calls.

Contract Tower denied our request but provided no operational/safety reason for the denial. Said they would not approve any requests.

Asked to fly / photograph a structure within 0.5 mile of Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport for personal purposes. Was denied by the airport’s director of flight operations after consultation with the tower. No reason given or latitude offered for further conversation.

I have called multiple ATC tower managers and they all want to make sure we have our 333, make sure we have submitted a COA, want to know where we are flying, when and for how long, ask that we call them when we arrive have a cell phone for emergency contact, and also have a two way nav/com radio to monitor approach and departure traffic. They have all been comforted to know that I am a certified FAA pilot and know all of the lingo and the pilot maps.

We just contacted the FSDO by phone, then e-mailed the airport manager (so that “OK” would be in writing), then issued a NOTAM. The FSDO call wasn’t necessary, but they are local and since this is new, we thought they might like to be informed. Everything went smoothly.

Our local ATC set up a voicemail box for notification. We are asked to leave name, number, location of flight, time of flight, duration of flight and max altitude information. It works well and I have talked to several of them before this system was in place and before registration was required. They have been nice and professional on every occasion.

Small airport – just called the tower and let them know, they said OK
Called the airport manager. We discussed safety concerns, and flight times, and I was cleared to fly

I called a tower about 2 miles from my planned flight. I advise where I would be flying and have a ceiling of 250AGL. They thanked me and there were no issues.

In Cleveland the experience has been mostly good. Call the tower, notify of Operations, and they appreciate the call. Sometimes they will ask if the flight is hobby or commercial, if you tell them it’s commercial they let you know you need a COA and LOA

I was flying within 2 miles of the airport. I contacted them explained where, when, and length of time we would be flying. They were extremely helpful and courteous. They even thanked us for letting them know ahead of time.

Contacted Colorado Springs airport approach via telephone to get clearance to operate in Local Parks. Easy, briefly asked size, weight and mission parameters. Asked to call in when I was done.

The next question validates a hypothesis that I’ve had for a while, that a big chunk of Section 333 Exemptions are being issued to pilots / companies who don’t follow (or plan to follow) the pilot-in-command regulation. Whether or not this is purposeful or simply missed communication is up to interpretation, but the data is telling:

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We asked a follow-up question:

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We also wanted to know a little bit about drone insurance habits, so we asked a couple of questions:

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We also asked a situational question that it looks like 13% of you can relate to!

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When we asked for more details from those interactions, here’s what we got back:

He had questions and was curious. Range, flight time, etc. Pure curiosity. Afterwards I informed the local Sheriff that I would fly pro bono for them if needed.

He thought it was cool, flying fast with flips and lights. He asked prices to get one. He was interested and was asking so he would understand them better.

They were just interested in seeing the drone; no one had complained. We had a very cordial conversation and they let me continue doing Real Estate aerials.

Gave us a hard time about flying, we pointed out that we have a FAA 333 Exemption and are flying legally, he then proceeded to back off.

They just wanted to know if we had the certification that we paid $5.00 for and we told them that we had it and we showed it to them. That was all that happen.

He handed me a USDA United States Department of Agriculture handout for Recreational Drone Tips with a list of rules and guidelines and a map of the Sedona AZ area of forest service and wilderness area’s. Then asked me if my drone was registered with the FAA. I said yes and handed him my registration card. He said he was glad that I had my drone registered.

He was just really curious as to what I was doing. I think he was trying to decide if I was up to no good, or if I was OK. I gave him a quick over view of flying and let him watch my fpv feed. He was impressed and asked 20 questions, and left asking where he could buy one.

They were fascinated, but were unaware of their roll in asking for my credentials to fly.

I introduced myself, answered most questions before they asked one, they saw that I had a two way aviation radio letting local air traffic know where I was, he asked if I knew the local laws, and I confirmed that I did and that I was staying within those laws and had copies of the FAR with me, along with other local rules.

Officer asked what I was doing. I explained that I was taking aerial images. She asked if I’d received permission. I explained that I was on public land and require permission, but would be happy to cease flying off they were uncomfortable. The officer allowed me to continue, and I took a few pictures for her emailed them to her.

Finally, it looks the majority of drone pilots believe we’ll see new rules over the summer.

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Again, our goal with this sUAS market research survey was to explore the habits and opinions of U.S. drone pilots interested in (or already) operating commercially.

Looking at the above survey questions, only a few data points really stood out for our team:

  • That when I asked whether or not the pilot/company had applied for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), a whopping 38% of respondents didn’t even know what a COA was.
  • That there’s such a varying set of experiences pilots are having when reaching out to an airport, heliport, or air traffic control tower. I really wish this was more standardized. This kind of environment is breeding a culture of non-compliance.
  • That such a big chunk (52%) of Section 333 Exemptions are being issued to pilots / companies who don’t follow (or plan to follow) the rule that the pilot-in-command (PIC) should hold a traditional manned aircraft pilot license (sport, recreational, private, commercial, etc.)

In conclusion, I’m pretty confident that Part 107 will be released in its final form sometime in the next couple of months.

The question I and many others in the industry have is what Part 107 implementation will ultimately look like–what aspects of Part 107, if any, will be immediately put into effect, versus other aspects that might take several more months to roll out.

As technology continues to outpace our ability to regulate the skies, it’s scary to think about non-educated pilots entering the national airspace, a lack of standardization on the FAA’s side re: airport, heliport, and air traffic control communications, and a culture of regulatory non-compliance.

At the same time, I’d like to think we’re all heading in the right direction here.

Wishing you all blue skies, and safe flight operations!

Alan Perlman

Founder & CEO

Alan is an FAA-certified drone pilot and founded UAV Coach in 2014 to help connect drone enthusiasts, to provide world-class sUAS industry training courses, and to help push the drone community forward with a focus on safety and commercial opportunities.

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