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FAA Approves First Exemption Allowing UAS to Spray Crops

In a giant step forward for the commercial UAS industry, the FAA recently granted Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S.A. (“Yamaha”) a Section 333 exemption that authorizes Yamaha to conduct agricultural aircraft operations with the Yamaha RMAX Type II G UAS (“RMAX”). This represents the first time the FAA has granted an exemption to conduct operations that involve more than aerial data collection, which the FAA defines to include “any remote sensing and measuring by an instrument(s) aboard the [sUAS]. Examples include imagery (photography, video, infrared, etc.), electronic measurement (precision surveying, RF analysis, etc.), chemical measurement (particulate measurement, etc.), or any other gathering of data by instruments aboard the [sUAS].” Under its Section 333 exemption, Yamaha may conduct agricultural operations, including dispensing pesticides, insecticides, and any other substance intended for plant nourishment, soil treatment, or pest control. Yamaha will retain control of the RMAX while conducting the agricultural-related services. Companies aren’t necessarily limited to using UAS to collect data; rather sUAS can be used to perform physical work. The FAA’s decision falls in line with its risk-based approach to approving UAS operations. In the RMAX’s more than 2 million flight hours conducting similar operations in other countries, there have been no injuries due to problems with the aircraft.

The RMAX weighs approximately 200 pounds fully loaded and is the heaviest UAS approved under a Section 333 exemption. In evaluating whether the RMAX’s size and weight would adversely impact safety, the FAA evaluated risk mitigating factors such as RMAX service history, pilot and spotter training requirements, system safety features, the intended low-altitude and remote area of operations, and other operating limitations. The FAA requested additional information regarding how close the PIC and VO could be to the RMAX, asking for information on RMAX failures that could result in the departure of any component(s) and details on the potential hazards relative to the mass, velocity, and other pertinent design and failure characteristics of each component. Based on that information and to ensure safety, the exemption requires that the RMAX pilot and crew remain outside a designated safety zone when the RMAX is operating. Unlike recent Section 333 summary grants, Yamaha was not issued a blanket COA and must apply for and obtain a COA for each operation.

The FAA’s decision to grant Yamaha a Section 333 exemption highlights Section 333’s continuing importance as the U.S. UAS industry develops. The FAA’s small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking limits the proposed Part 107 to UAS weighing less than 55 pounds. Weighing in at over 200 pounds fully loaded, UAS like the RMAX would not be allowed to operate under the small UAS regulatory regime. Companies interested in conducting operations outside of the small UAS rule’s boundaries will have to rely on Section 333 exemptions until the FAA develops rules for larger UAS.