Meet the Only 3 Companies that the FAA Allows to Fly Over People
BY Zacc Dukowitz24 October 2017
Before last month the FAA had only issued four waivers to fly over people—two to CNN, and two to FLIR.
But in September a third company, Project Wing, was issued a 107.39 waiver, and then just last week CNN was issued their third such waiver, increasing the total count of these waivers by a third. (We’ve also heard rumors of a fourth company very close to being issued a 107.39 waiver . . . but more on that when it’s official.)
So what’s going on? Is the FAA getting more lax, or are companies just getting better at applying?
Let’s take a closer look.
Note: A waiver to fly over people is also known as a 107.39 waiver, since it waives the prohibition of flying over people covered in section 107.39 of the FAA’s Part 107 rules for small unmanned aircraft.
Who Are the Three Companies with 107.39 Waivers?
We’re first going to review the three companies that have been approved to fly over people, and then take a look at CNN’s three 107.39 waivers to see what we can learn about the application process, and how it might have changed since the first 107.39 waiver was issued.
CNN, FLIR, and Project Wing have all been issued 107.39 waivers. CNN has three of them, FLIR has two, and Project Wing has one.
Here are all of the 107.39 waivers that have been issued to date, organized from oldest to newest:
CNN was the first company ever to be granted a waiver to fly over people as part of the FAA’s Pathfinder Program. However, that first 107.39 waiver only allowed them to fly 21 feet in the air, so it really made more for good PR than for actual use.
In many ways, CNN has helped build the system to make flights over people permissible, by creating policies and guidelines, as well as detailed specs for the drone they plan to use in each instance, all of which have served to address the acute safety concerns that come along with flying over people.
The second 107.39 waiver CNN received approved a tethered drone over people, which was still a limited use case.
But their third and most current waiver is ground breaking in the drone industry, because it allows operations over open-air assemblies (i.e., crowds) and flights up to an altitude of 150 feet above ground level over people.
This waiver signifies a critical step forward not only for CNN’s UAS operations, but also the commercial UAS industry at large.
-- David Vigilante, senior vice president of legal for CNN
Here are CNN’s three 107.39 waivers, in case you’d like to take a look:
FLIR is a leader in the field of sensing solutions. They create thermal imaging systems, visible-light imaging systems, locator systems, measurement and diagnostic systems, and advanced threat detection systems.
FLIR is unique in that they are the only company to have been granted a host of other waivers simultaneous to their 107.39 waivers.
Check it out:
What do those other waivers allow? Here’s a list:
The fact that FLIR got a waiver to fly a drone from a moving vehicle; to fly a drone beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS); and to fly over people all at once is just wild. Only a handful of other companies have been issued waivers to fly from a moving vehicle or BVLOS, not to mention over people—FLIR managed to get all three at the same time.
We reached out to FLIR recently to ask what all of these waivers were being used for, but haven’t heard back yet. We’ll make sure to update you if we do.
Here are FLIR’s two 107.39 waivers, in case you’d like to take a look:
Project Wing is a drone delivery company owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google.
We reached out to them to ask what they planned to do with their brand new 107.39 waiver, which was issued one month ago, on September 25th. They didn’t have any public news to share, but did say, “We’re really excited about the opportunities [the waiver] opens for us to do more complex flight testing in the U.S.”
Project Wing recently made headlines for the launch of their backyard delivery program in Australia, where they are testing the delivery of burritos and other food in a remote area of the Australian Capital Territory.
If the Australia program is any indicator, Project Wing is looking to do similar things in the delivery space in the U.S.
Despite the recent international successes of other drone delivery companies like Flytrex, with their delivery program in Iceland, and Matternet, with their upcoming delivery program in Switzerland, it seems like the one drone delivery company with a 107.39 waiver may well have a leg up when it comes to both testing and actually moving things forward with the FAA.
Here is Project Wing’s 107.39 waiver, in case you’d like to take a look:
What Can We Learn from Existing 107.39 Waivers?
Note: The content in the section that follows first appeared on the Drone Pilot Ground School website.
Since CNN has three 107.39 waivers, let’s take a look at the progression in the language from their very first waiver, which was issued on August 29, 2016, to their third waiver, which was issued just a few weeks ago on October 13, 2017, to see what we can learn.
One of the first things you notice when reading CNN’s first 107.39 waiver, which is the very first waiver ever granted by the FAA to fly over people, is that CNN has essentially invented the requisite materials to demonstrate the responsibility, preparedness, and system requirements necessary for flying over people (presumably in collaboration with the FAA, as a member of the Pathfinder Program).
In CNN’s first 107.39 waiver, the FAA references seven different supporting documents submitted to support CNN’s application:
- CNN UAS Operations Manual
- Concept of Operations
- Operational Risk Assessment
- Fotokite Pro Operator Guide
- Fotokite Pro Specification Sheet
- Fotokite Safety Datasheet
- RTI Fotokite Report
In the second waiver, none of these resources are mentioned (presumably because they are already on file).
And then, in CNN’s third 107.39 waiver, we see that these resources have changed and are now listed as:
- CNN UAS Operations Manual (version 1.8)
- CNN Vantage Robotics Snap Concept of Operations (CONOPS)
- CNN Operational Risk Assessment for the Vantage Robotics Snap (ORA)
- CNN Supplemental Letter in Support of Waiver Request to Operate the Snap UAS Over People
It’s worth noting the emphasis in all of these supporting materials on the UAS itself.
For CNN’s first waiver, four of the seven documents listed have to do with the Fotokite drone, and in the list of documents for CNN’s third waiver, two of the four documents listed have to do with the Snap drone.
Broadening Scope, Tightening Definitions
Moving forward, another thing you notice when you compare CNN’s first two waivers is that the FAA grows more permissive in the second waiver, but also much more focused in their definitions and allowances.
Here are some examples:
- While the first waiver only allows for flights 21 feet in the air, the second allows for flying higher (although we don’t seem to find a specific cap on the height allowed).
- While the first waiver generally allows flying over people and only prohibits “operations over open-air assemblies”, the second waiver only allows flying over certain people, i.e. Direct Participants and Persons Authorized (each designation has a specific definition).
- While the first waiver contains 18 provisions, the second one contains 29, with many sub-provisions. One big cause for the extension of provisions in the second waiver is the inclusion of much more granular information regarding equipment maintenance, record-keeping, and the types of information to be recorded prior to flying and following malfunctions.
So what can we learn from all of this?
It seems like companies are getting better at applying for 107.39 waivers, and it also seems like the FAA is getting better at supporting companies toward successful applications.
Which is all to say that there will probably be more 107.39 waivers issued in the near future.
We know of at least one company that’s right on the cusp of being granted a waiver to fly over people . . . but our lips are sealed until the news is made public.
Stay tuned for more!