FAA Waivers May Be Required

Last summer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued its first regulations allowing commercial flights of small unmanned aircraft (sUAS, colloquially known as drones). As we reported, those rules place a number of restrictions on flying drones for commercial use, although the agency provided the opportunity to obtain waivers of some rules.

For tower owners and inspectors, there is a growing appeal for using drones to perform inspections – and perhaps someday, when the technology is ripe, to actually make repairs. Given the risks involved in climbing towers, the ability to substitute a machine for a human makes sense.

But be aware that the current FAA rules will restrict tower inspections by drones in certain situations. For one, there currently is a 400 feet altitude restriction on commercial drone flights, unless the operator is able to fly the UAS within a 400 foot radius around a structure and does not fly higher than 400 feet above the top of that structure. The current rules also restrict drones to certain airspace without prior authorization from the local air traffic control (ATC), namely “Class G” airspace. Class G airspace, uncontrolled by ATC, is essentially low-altitude airspace away from airports (the required distance depends on the size and type of airport, with the greatest areas of protection around the largest airports).

In sum, urban areas are generally blanketed with controlled airspace. Many towers located in urban areas and near airports cannot be inspected by drones without prior ATC authorization. And even if prior ATC authorization is requested, some airspace, such as the protected airspace over Washington, D.C., as well as near military bases and other sensitive government locations, will essentially always be restricted. (One more point to consider – Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) also list locations where there are temporary flight restrictions.)

Other rules that may impact tower inspections include restrictions on flights over people, flights outside of daylight hours, and flights beyond line-of-sight. The FAA has set out a means of obtaining certificates of waiver of these rules and certain others, which will require the right set of facts demonstrating that a particular flight can be conducted safely.

And as always, fly safe, and lawful, out there. And please contact us if you think you may need a waiver of these FAA rules or have questions on this process.