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Rutherford County, TN First County Government to Receive Waiver to Fly Over People

BY Zacc Dukowitz
29 November 2018

Rutherford County, TN has become the first county government to receive a waiver to fly sUAS over people (also known as a 107.39 waiver).

The county received permission from the FAA to use the Snap drone, created by Vantage Robotics, for their flights over people. They plan to use the waiver in both emergency and non-emergency scenarios.

Rutherford County has been working to improve their drone program for some time now. Back in September, UAV Coach CEO Alan Perlman led a drone flight training class for Rutherford County employees to help them improve their skills as drone pilots in the work they do for the county.

Group Flight Training Rutherford County
Alan leading a flight training class for Rutherford County

About Rutherford County’s 107.39 Waiver

We asked Mike Curtis, GIS Manager for Rutherford County, to fill us in on why they decided to pursue the 107.39 waiver, and what they plan to do with it.

Curtis told us that the waiver was first pursued following a white nationalist rally held in Rutherford County in October of 2017. County employees monitored the rally with sUAS, but were restricted in their surveillance to only flying over buildings and observing events from a distance.

We have found . . . a need to be able to capture data and imagery of events like a controversial rally and counter-protest in downtown Murfreesboro October of 2017. While we had some sUAS in the air, the restrictions of keeping the sUAS over structures limited our capability to monitor the event as it evolved.

– Mike Curtis, GIS Manager for Rutherford County

While the rally was the catalyst for pursuing the waiver, county officials plan to use it for a range of scenarios.

Some of these include filming county events, such as an upcoming Christmas parade in Murfreesboro and the county’s Main Street Jazz Fest in May, as well as gathering information about fires in progress and other emergencies. Some of the footage gathered will air on Rutherford County’s local access T.V. station RCTV so that viewers can see these new perspectives of local events.

To obtain the 107.39 waiver, Rutherford County worked with drone lawyer James Mackler. Mackler served as the county’s intermediary with the FAA and with Vantage Robotics, gathering and submitting the necessary paperwork and working closely with all parties to shepherd the application through.

Vantage Robotics’ Snap UAS

Vantage Robotics is not new to working with the FAA to secure waivers to fly over people.

Last year Vantage Robotics’ Snap drone was used in CNN’s second successful application for a waiver to fly over people, which was the second CNN had received. In fact, CNN was the first company ever to get one of these waivers, in part due to their collaboration with the FAA on the Pathfinder Program.

We’re excited at Vantage, both to be continuing to pave new ground for safe and legal UAV use near people as well to see Snap contributing to public safety.

– Vantage Robotics

According to Brendan Stewart of Aerovista Innovations, when the FAA is considering a 107.39 waiver request, the specs of the drone that will be used in the proposed operations over people is of very high concern. Which makes sense—in order for a UAS to be flown safely over people, it has to be demonstrable that, if the drone suddenly falls from the sky, it will not pose a serious risk to the people on the ground.

The Snap presents a low-risk option for flights over people because its rotors are enmeshed in a flexible cage, it’s lightweight, and it can absorb a high degree of energy on impact in case it does fall to the ground.

Photo credit: Vantage Robotics

The Evolution of 107.39 Waivers

The FAA has historically been slow to grant waivers to fly over people, and with good reason. Of all the types of flying prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 rules, flying over people is one of the primary ways that a drone operation could lead to serious injury.

Just a little over a year ago, in October of 2017, the FAA had only issued five 107.39 waivers to just three companies (CNN, FLIR, and Project Wing).

Fast forward 13 months, and the FAA has now issued twenty 107.39 waivers to 14 different entities (the list includes 12 companies, 1 person, and 1 county government—Rutherford County).

[To view all of the 107.39 waivers the FAA has granted, visit this page on the FAA’s website and search “107.39”.]

And it looks like this trend might speed up even more, in part with the help of Vantage Robotics. Given that the specs of the proposed UAV for flights over people are so crucial, Vantage Robotics now essentially has a playbook for helping to secure waivers to fly over people.

We’re pleased to see that the FAA has demonstrated a repeatable waiver process for Vantage to expand our support of additional customers for commercial operations over people.

– Vantage Robotics

Since the news of their 107.39 waiver first broke, Rutherford County has already had several agencies contact them to learn how they can pursue one for themselves. It will be interesting to see how many 107.39 waivers will have been issued by this time next year. Fifteen have been issued since October of last year, and we can only imagine that many more will be issued by this time next year.

Are you excited about the progress being made on the 107.39 waiver front? Let us know what you think by sharing your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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