The FAA just announced that a fourth company will be added to the list of those with Part 107 waivers to fly over people, also known as 107.39 waivers.
The three other companies with 107.39 waivers are CNN, FLIR, and Project Wing (owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet), all huge companies with massive financial backing.
CivitasNow is the fourth company that was just added to the list, and they are quite different from the other three. In August of this year, CivitasNow was reported as having only 15 full time employees—not too shabby, but also not a CNN, FLIR, or Alphabet.
So why is this a big deal?
Because it indicates that the FAA might be starting to open the doors for these and other special waivers, and letting smaller companies in.
How Did They Get the Waiver?
AeroVista Innovations (AVI), a UAV training and consulting services firm—and the creators of UAV Coach’s partner course in aerial thermography—was the company that handled the entire process for securing this new waiver to fly over people.
AVI’s first step in the application process was to research and identify an aircraft for a specific scenario that might be acceptable, from a regulatory standpoint, for flying over people.
Through their research they found the Aerotain Skye, an aircraft that “resembles a tethered floating beach ball but is technically an ‘aircraft,’” according to the FAA. Essentially, it’s a blimp powered by helium that has six ducted rotors, and that flies just like most drones would fly.
The Aerotain Skye had a lot going for it. It was already being flown over people in Switzerland, so there was an existing track record that the AVI team could point to in their waiver application. And it was buoyant, with no exposed rotational parts that could hurt people in case it ever crashed.
When the team at AeroVista Innovations looked at the FAA’s performance-based standards for flights over people, the Aerotain looked like a shoe in.
The two primary sticking points for most people in applying for a 107.39 waiver are proving that the aircraft won’t cause a hazard if it falls out of the air, and proving that the rotational components on the aircraft won’t cause a hazard (that is, proving that the aircraft won’t turn into a falling projectile or a falling knife blade—or a bunch of spinning, falling knife blades, as the case may be).
The specific use case originally proposed by AeroVista for the Aerotain Skye was to fly over people during Major League Soccer games. The Aerotain would be used to film the games as part of a marketing effort for CivitasNow.
Even though AVI began the application process several months ahead of time, the soccer games were long over before the waiver was issued. However, the waiver they have now is incredibly permissive, and allows CivitasNow to fly over people with the Aerotain Skye anywhere in uncontrolled airspace.
AeroVista Innovations first submitted their materials for the 107.39 waiver in April of this year, knowing that they had a tight window for getting approval before the soccer games in July. (Due to other factors beyond their control, this was the earliest they could submit the application.)
AVI went back and forth with the FAA several times, providing technical details and extra documentation, and then things went silent for quite a while. As July approached, it became clear that the waiver wouldn’t be issued in time to fly the Aerotain over the soccer games.
But this wasn’t much of surprise to the AVI team, who were familiar with the FAA approval process, and knew that even a 90 day window was cutting it close.
July came and went, along with the soccer games AVI’s clients had originally wanted to film with the Aerotain. AVI didn’t hear back from the FAA for several months, and began to think that their application might simply be denied.
But in October, AVI heard back from the FAA and the feedback was very positive—the inspector who contacted them liked all their details, and was impressed by the thoroughness of their application. He said he just had a few more questions for them to answer, and they set up a call.
After going through that call and providing further assurances—one of the questions asked was What would happen if the aircraft is shot down?—it was clear that their application was, in all likelihood, going to be approved.
Fast forward to today, about a month after AVI had their follow up call with the FAA, and news of the CivitasNow waiver to fly over people is official.
Want to learn more about how AeroVista Innovations secured a waiver for flights over people? Sign up for their webinar on the step-by-step process they took.
Note: The webinar will be held on Tuesday, November 21 at 7pm Eastern.
Advice from AeroVista Innovations
The key piece of advice from Brendan Stewart, Chief Pilot and Co-Founder of AeroVista Innovations, about how AVI was able to secure a 107.39 waiver was to see the FAA as an ally, not a roadblock.
Brendan Stewart, Co-Founder and Chief Pilot at AeroVista Innovations
He said that while they worked through the application process, submitting extra information and sitting in on phone calls, it was clear that the FAA was genuinely interested in issuing the waiver, so long as they could be completely assured that all safety contingencies had been anticipated and could be avoided.
This advice echoes what the FAA itself said in their press release announcing the CivitasNow waiver:
The CivitasNow waiver is part of the FAA’s continuing effort to expand drone operations in the nation’s airspace while reducing risks to public safety and security.
The FAA’s existing performance-based standards had been created with rotor, multi-rotor, or fixed wing crafts in mind. Through AVI’s application process it became clear that some of the existing standards didn’t neatly apply to other types of crafts, such as blimps.
According to AVI, the FAA was very willing to think outside the box throughout the application process, and AVI was impressed at how closely they wanted to collaborate.
We interviewed Brendan Stewart last week, and he had a lot of insights to share about emergency support, aerial thermography applications, and how to distinguish yourself as a drone services operator in a competitive market. Check out the interview here.
Some may say that this new waiver is a unique scenario, since most people applying for a 107.39 waiver will not be proposing to fly a blimp over people, but a multi-rotor or rotor aircraft.
While it’s true that the design of the Aerotain was crucial in securing this waiver, the fact that it was issued to company of moderate size still represents an important shift for the FAA. Add to this that the FAA issued a 107.39 waiver in September to Project Wing, and in October to CNN (their third), and it looks like the FAA is making some positive progress when it comes to issuing more of these waivers.