On June 13, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued Notice 8900.659, directing its staff with updated guidance on the Part 137 certification process for UAS. The FAA justifies these changes by asserting that uncrewed aircraft system (UAS) Part 137 operations present a lower risk than other certificated operations.
As stated by the agency:
We’ve seen a significant increase in agricultural aircraft operator certificate applicants seeking to use Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) under 14 CFR Part 137. Our data shows that UAS not only have significant commercial and agricultural value, but they also operate in a lower risk category when compared to crewed aircraft; they have no onboard pilot, carry a much smaller payload and 99 percent of the UA carry no flammable fuel.The FAA is moving forward with the following changes:
Since the first agricultural UAS certificate was issued in 2015, there have been no known accidents or injuries among the 178 certificated operators. Given the relatively low risk of agricultural UAS operations and restrictions written into the required exemption, we’ve determined that streamlining the Part 137 UAS certification process will not adversely affect safety.
Part 137 UAS Certification Process
- Uncrewed Operators (UO) now apply for a Part 137 certificate via the central UAS Operations Office (137UOO) instead of their local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). They would still need to have applied for and been granted the necessary exemptions from 14 CFR before applying. The new office may be contacted at: UAS137Certificates@faa.gov.
- The FAA determined UO are lower risk, so § 137.19(e) Knowledge and Skills Tests can now be self-administered. The FAA can request documentation of satisfactory completion.
- No Letter of Authorization (LOA) issued for UO; Operating Certificate issued by 137UOO.
- Splitting of Flight Safety Offices:
- 137UOO is responsible for uncrewed-only operations.
- Local FSDO is responsible for mixed operations (having both crewed and uncrewed).
- 137UOO will specifically coordinate with FSDOs to conduct field activities on an as-needed basis (inspections, investigations, etc.).
- No regular surveillance will be required by the FAA for uncrewed-only operations.
Newly required operations manual for UO (includes safety, flight duties/responsibilities, accident reporting, HAZMAT, etc.).
- Newly required self-created/self-administered/self-documented training program for UO.
- (1) and (2) are not submitted to or approved by the FAA but must be made available by request.
- 49 USC § 44807 previously approved UA are all approved for Part 137 use.
- All <55 lb. UA are approved for Part 137 use.
Alignment of Policy
NAAA is concerned about the competitive advantage that this gives to new uncrewed Part 137 applicants over those who must follow the standard process with the FSDO. The association is also concerned that the separate centralized approach for UAS may prove to further alienate crewed and uncrewed Part 137 operators, as they would deal with distinctly different FAA officials and oversight, even if treating adjacent fields. When the skies become more crowded with UAS operations, FAA safety coordination becomes more and more important.
Uncrewed-only operators need only a Remote Pilot Certificate (not a commercial pilot certificate).
- Third-class medical certificate required (not a second-class medical certificate).
The new process will likely relieve backed-up FSDOs of their UAS burden, and hopefully allow them to better serve crewed and mixed crewed/uncrewed operators. In addition, NAAA does appreciate the FAA’s assertion that at least a third-class medical certificate be required. NAAA has held firm on this requirement for all proposed commercial operations of UAS, commenting as such on countless UAS exemption petitions.
Within 12 months, the FAA will incorporate these changes into Advisory Circular (AC) 137-1. Current Part 137 UAS applicants on the National Applicant List will be automatically transferred to the 137UOO, and applicants in progress will be given the option to continue working the certification with the FSDO or transfer to the new streamlined process. It is also worthy to note that the scope of these changes does not extend to any specialty use cases, such as beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) or swarm operations. Any proposed specialty use cases would still need to be initiated through a Letter of Intent (LOI) with the jurisdictional FSDO.
NAAA continues to meet with industry stakeholders to better evaluate the impacts of these changes to its member operators and is actively formulating a suitable response to the FAA regarding this notice.