Monthly Archives: January 2015

So how DO you get a UAS exemption?

When the FAA announced it had issued a few more ‘exemptions’ for UAS operators in America, I decided to call the FAA to find out how many more might be on the cards.

Turns out that it’s the tip of the iceberg and we can expect to see more exemptions being issued as the year goes on. The FAA says it has received ‘petitions’ from 214 wannabe operators and so far 14 of these have been given the thumbs up.

By contrast, Australia’s CASA has issued around 180 ‘approvals’ and in the UK, the CAA has issued a staggering 422 ‘permissions’ . So in this instance, the UK is leading the way forward.


But what of the other 200 US companies that are still waiting to hear if they have an exemption? The FAA told me they ‘should hear within three months of submitting their petition’. Interestingly, that figure of 200 might become much lower as time goes on.

This is because, in some cases, the FAA has had to go back to some of the companies to ask them for more information about how they intend to operate. And guess what? These companies haven’t bothered to reply so the FAA has actually struck those companies out of the running. One less for them to worry about…

I just can’t understand why you’d go to the trouble of putting in a petition to the FAA in the first place and then not bother to send back the extra information the FAA needs to make a decision. Of course, this is good news for the other companies because they’ll get their petition looked at much sooner.

I have started to ponder more about why companies didn’t reply back to the FAA as the weeks have gone past. Could the extra information that the FAA is asking be too difficult for them to file a suitable reply? I decided the best way to answer this might be to look at the 14 exemptions that have issued already and, in particular, how some of them have dealt with the more-difficult questions asked by the FAA. The exemptions breakdown as follows:

• TV and movie making (7 exemptions)
• Construction site monitoring (1 exemption to Clayco, which will operate Skycatch UAVs)
• Precision aerial surveys (1 exemption for Trimble and 2 exemptions for Woolpert Inc)
• Flare stack inspections (1 exemption for VDOS to carry out inspections for Shell Oil)
• Aerial video to augment real-estate listings (1 exemption for Tierra Antigua Realty)
• Crop surveying for precision agriculture (1 exemption)

I looked a bit more into how these companies are using UAS and the majority have created professionally-filmed videos to show exactly how they’re using UAS – if you’re a wannabe UAS operator then you might look to come up with something similar…

Wannabe UAS operators need to read through the 14 petitions on the FAA’s website to see how each of these companies worded their answers to key questions.

More UAS exemptions on the way, says FAA

It strikes me that the difference between being awarded an exemption or not lies in using the correct (and clever) language.

In the case of Tierra Antigua Realty’s petition, the owner of the company, Douglas Trudeau, wrote that while private pilots are prohibited from commercial operations, he can safely operate a UAV (no passengers or crew) and that a pilot’s license will not ensure the skills necessary to fly a UAV and the risks are much lower.

To cover himself completely, Trudeau has even made an application for a 120-day temporary airman certificate to give him time to get a private pilot’s license. He also stated that the flight manual for the operation cannot be on board the aircraft (in this case the UAV) but it will be kept at the ground station.

I’ve seen a similar thing in the UK where Sky-Futures’ training and legislation director, Nick Rogers, has come up with a new training route for UAS operators that mimics the step-by-step approach used in the private pilot and commercial pilot world.

UAS trainees will start on a small UAV first, ‘a bit like flying a Cessna 152’, called ‘Initial’ training, before them moving on to more complex UAVs that are carrying expensive payloads, called Advanced training. He’ll also introduce emergency handling so trainees can cope if the automatic height- and heading-hold functions fail.

He’s also moving it on even further by having ‘Type’ training – a bit like what commercial pilots go through in order to fly an Airbus 320 or Boeing 737 – where companies can bring along the UAS they want to operate and be given training on how to fly it.


No doubt, it helps that Nick Rogers is a current serving 747 pilot and understands how manned pilot licencing works.

I’ve since read that in many of the exemptions/permissions/approvals given to companies, there seems to be an employee on board that has some degree of understanding of ‘manned’ flying licences and the level of proficiency required to operate UAS – and I think this will be extremely important in the future rule-making around UAS being allowed to operate in open airspace.

The future all hinges on language – the FAA currently classes a UAV as an aircraft and as such it means UAVs are subject to the same rules that ‘aircraft’ face – apart from when they are ‘exempt’. Thankfully the Americans’ exemption process seems to be working well, as does the UK’s…

But what about the thousands of people that are going out and buying drones either for fun or to unknowingly start using them in a commercial activity?

For this I’d like to see a two-day training course introduced that’s a bit like a motorcycle CBT (compulsory basic training). Before anyone can buy a drone they’ll have to show their CBT licence to the seller and then keep it on them while they’re flying it in the future.

Even a card issued to people after sitting an online test about the rules and regs on the CAA website would help, something akin to a fishing licence. Just at least something that prevents a defence of ‘oh I didn’t realise there are rules’.

I personally think the the future integration of UAS is in the laps of lawyers who have the clever ability to use the right language.

Maybe we need a new way to describe aircraft and UAS collectively? How about ‘vehicles that fly’? Something I’m going to call VTF.

Then again, if there’s one thing aviation doesn’t need, then it’s another acronym…


  • Here’s what the US companies with exemptions are up to:

Aerial MOB carried out the filming for Nike’s ‘Risk Everything’ campaign

Pictorvision Inc describes how it is using UAVs here

HeliVideo Productions

HeliVideo Productions 2014 Reel from Heli Video Productions LLC on Vimeo.

Snaproll Media

2012 reel from SnapRoll Media on Vimeo.

RC Pro Productions Consulting LLC dBa Vortex Aerial

Flying Cam

Clayco will use a Skycatch UAV to carry out construction site surveys.

Trimble’s UX5 drone weighs 5.5 pounds and performs precision aerial surveys by taking digital photographs

Woolpert plans to fly Altavian Nova Block III drones, which weigh 15 pounds and are 5 feet long with a 9-foot wing span, to map rural Ohio and Ship Island, Miss.

VDOS plans to fly Aeryon SkyRanger drones to inspect flare stacks for Shell Oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tierra Antigua Realty

Advanced Aerial Solutions plans to fly an eBee senseFly UAV

The dreaded ‘C word’

As I see it US military planners currently have a bit of a problem. Even as budgets shoot down following the end of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have to start looking at the ‘what if’ scenarios for the next 20 years in order to ensure that they have the capabilities needed when their political masters next call on them to defend US interests.

The assumption is the next major conflict to involve the US will be in that timeframe as for the last century at least the US has deployed its military might in major operations with that relative frequency.

Looming large in those ‘what ifs’ is the rise of China and whether its current assertiveness in its region could become a major problem for the US and its regional allies despite the interconnected nature of their economies.


However, in public forums US military planners hardly ever use the ‘C word’ as if it’s some dirty little secret that can’t be shared outside the family. In some cases this can get to a certain level of absurdity.

I remember being at one briefing on UCAS-D when a military official was explaining the benefits an unmanned naval bomber would bring to the fleet. In explaining the range and stand-off capability one slide showed an unnamed coastline with range indicators of how far off the coast a US carrier group could be and still be effective. Despite the insistence of the briefer to the contrary it was the Chinese coastline turned through 90 degrees and helpfully given the OpFor traditional colour of red.

The reluctance to refer to China seems to have almost reached the limits of some form of inverted Tourette’s Syndrome where the mere use of the word causes speakers to swoon.

China’s bristliness is probably a large part of the reason why this is the case, but you have to wonder if it runs deeper and what damage this could be doing in preventing the military explaining what it needs to the public and to politicians in order to ensure the right funds are funnelled to the right projects.

The dangers of this were clear at the Surface Navy Association’s annual jamboree in Washington, DC this week.

US surface forces are in some amount of structural disarray having concentrated on a certain mission set, largely the projection of air power, since the end of the Cold War. China’s naval rise is forcing planners to look at the potential of large scale surface operations for the first time since the end of the Cold War and the loss of the Soviet navy as a peer competitor.


The speakers articulated a vision in which the US Navy needs to be prepared for large scale surface engagements (well it was the Surface Navy Association) but sometimes the reasons for needing longer range ship-to-ship missiles became lost without being able to point directly to the threat they need to counter.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some in academic and political circles that obsess about the potential threat that China represents, but they are often outliers, and policymakers and the public in the US usually have more immediate concerns than what may, or may not, be happening in the South China Sea.

However, to paraphrase, without being able to say ‘it’s the Chinese stupid’, military planners lose an important weapon in being able to justify the level of preparedness they obviously think is necessary.

Privately they might be able to say we’re concerned about the threat a more assertive China may represent, but without being able to use the ‘C word’ in the public square then it is going to be difficult to argue for the resources needed when people are more concerned about their weekly grocery bill.

Winning the war against ISIL means Iraq will split

Mideast Syria Inside KobaniIn the fight against ISIL, the number of Western military advisers in Iraq is increasing while the amount of military equipment being provided is also expanding.

This sustained effort will eventually enable the Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces to defeat the extremists but it could also spell the end for the Iraqi state as we know it.

The Iraqi-Kurds have gained the praise of the West for their central role in the fight and have gained significant international sympathy, particularly since the plight of the Yazidi Kurds, who were stranded on Mount Shingal, became headline news in mid-2014.

But the price for their sacrifice is likely to be the creation of a Kurdish state.

The Iraqi-Kurds have autonomy and a regional government in the north but the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party – Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan) are more efficient than the Peshmerga ‘army’ which is anything but.

However, both forces are working together to defend Kirkuk from ISIL after the Iraqi army fled and some Peshmerga troops have been allowed access to fight ISIL in Kobani, Syria. Nevertheless, the PKK and its Syrian Kurdish wing – the YPG – is the main force fighting in Kobani and once the ISIL threat has been defeated it may see the time as ripe to secure official nationhood.

This is important because although the PKK has officially rejected claims to a state it has only recently ended a conflict with Turkey and is registered as a terrorist group by NATO, the US and EU.

This could lead the Kurds to think that backed by significant international sympathy for their plight this would be the time to try to secure full independence post-ISIL. It will require skilled politicians on both sides along with international mediation to navigate a route through this minefield, or there will be more blood.

Until now the Kurds have never had enough military training or equipment capability to fight for independence. But events are coming to a confluence: a weak government in Baghdad, Turkey supporting a move for the Kurdish regional government in Erbil led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani to sell their own oil, Washington examining ways for the Kurds to fund their own armed forces, and the influx of arms by airdrop to the Peshmerga.

It is inevitable that armaments supplied to Kurdish Peshmerga forces will end up in PKK hands.Mideast Syria Inside Kobani

In late-2014 the Peshmerga were equipped with the British .50 calibre Browning heavy machine guns. They have also been receiving donations of rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition, grenades and other infantry equipment from a variety of sources.

Now the US has supplied 250 MRAPs to Iraq – 25 for the Kurds and 225 for the Iraqi security forces. The latter are due to get more equipment under a government-to-government deal.

Earlier in November, through the US DCSA, the Iraqi government requested 2,000 APKWS for $97 million, which will be contracted to BAE Systems. Then in December it requested 1,000 M1151A1 up-armored HMMWVs, 1,000 M2 .50 calibre machine guns, and 1,000 MK19 40mm GLs for $579 million. AM General is the prime contractor.

Also in December, Iraq requested 175 M1A1 Abrams tanks with 120mm guns, 15 M88A2 Improved Tank Recovery Vehicles, 175 .50 calibre M2s, 350 7.62mm M240s, 10 .50 calibre BR M2 HBs, 190 AN/VRC-92 Vehicular Dual Long-Range Radio Systems, and 700 M1028 Commercial Utility Cargo Vehicles, for $2.4 billion. A contractor has not been decided.

With these armaments flowing into the country, the stage is being set for a conflict between the Iraqi government and the Kurds – unless leaders can find a solution at the negotiating table.