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Jonathan Rupprecht

Mr. Rupprecht is an aviation attorney who focuses on drones. Read more about his background as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University grad, and legal author. He has had media appearances on Forbes, Newsweek, Politico, NPR, Marketwatch, The Independent, Motherboard, and other sources. Feel free to send Jonathan a message here.

4 Big Updates to Many FAA Section 333 Exemptions

faa-section-333-exemption-updated5,529 FAA Section 333 Exemption were updated  (36 pages of docket numbers) with a blanket exemption amendment. This is great news as it provides many exemptions with new capabilities which were not possible before.  The FAA has slowly been updating things such as when they updated the blanket COA and when they changed the format of the “stock 333” around 3/7/2016.

Note: this update is only for those listed on those 36 pages who already had an exemption granted. If your petition for exemption was never granted, this does NOT apply to you. This is only for those who obtained an exemption.

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Important Points of the FAA Section 333 Exemption Update

Don’t want to read? Listen or watch the video while you are doing something! 

 

1. Registration Under Part 48

Many can now register via Part 48 or Part 47. Some of the older 333’s were ONLY Part 47. This is great as the Part 47 registration method is a pain to do. Please remember that the Part 48 registration database is being challenged in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by John Taylor. I’m helping him with the case and I think there are good reasons why the regulations were illegal and should be thrown out. See my article explaining why the regulations were illegally created. If John Taylor is successful, the registration database will be thrown out.

2. “Super List” of UA

The FAA created a giant list of approved aircraft. The FAA became tired of granting 333 exemption amendment requests to add aircraft. To solve this once and for all, the FAA approved the exemption holder for whatever was on the list. The FAA just kept updating the list over time and this met the needs of many; however, if you were granted an exemption prior to around May 2015, you most likely did not have the “super list” provision in your 333 exemption. The super list is specifically listed in docket FAA-2007-3330. Keep checking it as it is continually being updated to add on new aircraft. You should print it out and keep it with you as part of your operating documents.  Make sure your aircraft is located on it!

 

3. Flight Instruction is Allowed

Great job on doing this FAA! This will help promote safety and a culture of professionalism in the drone industry. I always made it a point to tell my flight students working on their private pilot certificates that their certificate was only a certificate allowing them to legally go out and accidentally kill themselves. It was really a license to learn, not to get cocky and start playing “Highway to the Danger Zone.” I instilled in them the need for safety. Additionally, flight instructors are role models for their students and we all know the drone community needs more pros, and less bros.

For a long time, only Kansas State had a 333 exemption that allowed flight instructing. The FAA has subsequently granted some 333 exemptions; however, all the older exemptions would have to petition for amendment to do instruction.

Why would this be beneficial? One example I know of is a large company that has protocols figured out and implemented for 333 exemption operations while they haven’t figured out how to operate under Part 107. Large battleships turn slowly. Another example is where a company has certain COA approvals for controlled airspace they obtained a long time ago. They would rather operate under those COAs than risk trying to obtain a newer airspace authorization. I can understand that. The FAA has been slow at things in the past; however, the FAA does seem to be making great strides in getting the airspace authorizations and waivers approved faster. The most recently granted night waivers were around 30 days from start to finish. One was super-fast at 13 days later; however, there are a few that are past 30 days waiting for the FAA. The one thing that is consistent is the different processors in the waiver and authorizations departments work at different paces.

 

4. Foreigners (Non-U.S. Citizens or Non-Permanent Residents)

The older 333 exemptions did not have a provision to allow the operation of foreign civil aircraft which is “(a) an aircraft of foreign registry that is not part of the armed forces of a foreign nation, or (b) a U.S.-registered aircraft owned, controlled or operated by persons who are not citizens or permanent residents of the United States.” See 14 CFR § 375.1 (emphasis mine). Now you can obtain a Foreign Aircraft Permit to allow a foreigner to operate under the 333.

 

Things NOT Changed In the FAA Section 333 Exemption Update

Still Sport Certificate or Higher

Unfortunately, you still must have a sport certificate or higher. A 107 Remote Pilot Certificate or student certificate will NOT work. One thing you might want to consider is if you do have a sport license or higher, doing work in the 333 exemption only aircraft area because that area will have less competition. 55 pound and heavier operations cannot be done under Part 107 but can be done by a 333 exemption. It may be a smart business idea to start focusing on offering 55 pound and heavier services, such as when you need to use a 55 pound+ crop duster, a heavy rig drone for cinematography, etc. for the service. You might be able to command higher profit margins since there are few legal alternative options for clients.

 

Does NOT Extend Previous 333 Expiration Date

The exemption says, “This exemption terminates on the date provided in the petitioner’s original exemption or amendment most recently granted prior to the date of this amendment, unless sooner superseded or rescinded.” Big bummer. If you are interested in hiring me to renew your older 333, contact me.

Side by Side Comparison of the Different FAA Section 333 Exemption Provisions

Please keep in mind that I picked the latest stock 333 for comparison. The exemptions have morphed over the years so your 333 might differ from what is listed as a “stock 333.” Keep in mind that some of the provisions are the same but the number just changed.  Underlining and bold means something is new while bold and strikethrough means it was deleted.

Previous 

Updated 

Same1. The operator is authorized by this grant of exemption to use any aircraft identified on the List of Approved Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) under Section 333 at regulatory docket FAA–2007–3330 at www.regulations.gov, when weighing less than 55 pounds including payload. Proposed operations of any aircraft not on the list currently posted to the above docket will require a new petition or a petition to amend this exemption.
Same2. If operations under this exemption involve the use of foreign civil aircraft the operator would need to obtain a Foreign Aircraft Permit pursuant to 14 CFR § 375.41 before conducting any commercial air operations under this authority. Application instructions are specified in 14 CFR §375.43. Applications should be submitted by electronic mail to the DOT Office of International Aviation, Foreign Air Carrier Licensing Division. Additional information can be obtained via https://cms.dot.gov/policy/aviation-policy/licensing/foreign-carriers.
6. The UA may not be operated at a speed exceeding 87 knots (100 miles per hour). The exemption holder may use either groundspeed or calibrated airspeed to determine compliance with the 87 knot speed restriction. In no case will the UA be operated at airspeeds greater than the maximum UA operating airspeed recommended by the aircraft manufacturer.

 

 

3. The UA may not be operated at a speed exceeding 87 knots (100 miles per hour). The operator may use either groundspeed or calibrated airspeed to determine compliance with the 87 knot speed restriction. In no case will the UA be operated at airspeeds greater than the maximum UA operating airspeed recommended by the aircraft manufacturer.
7. The UA must be operated at an altitude of no more than 400 feet above ground level (AGL). Altitude must be reported in feet AGL.

 

 

4. The UA must be operated at an altitude of no more than 400 feet above ground level (AGL). Altitude must be reported in feet AGL. This limitation is in addition to any altitude restrictions that may be included in the applicable COA.
23. Air Traffic Organization (ATO) Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). All operations shall be conducted in accordance with an ATO-issued COA. The exemption holder may apply for a new or amended COA if it intends to conduct operations that cannot be conducted under the terms of the enclosed COA.5. Air Traffic Organization (ATO) Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). All operations must be conducted in accordance with an ATO-issued COA. The exemption holder must apply for a new or amended COA if it intends to conduct operations that cannot be conducted under the terms of the enclosed COA.
8. The UA must be operated within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the PIC at all times. This requires the PIC to be able to use human vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses, as specified on the PIC’s FAA-issued airman medical certificate or U.S. driver’s license.6. The Pilot in Command (PIC) must have the capability to maintain visual line of sight (VLOS) at all times. This requires the PIC to be able to use human vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses, as specified on that individual’s FAA-issued airman medical certificate or valid U.S. driver’s license issued by a state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, a territory, a possession, or the Federal Government, to see the UA.
9. All operations must utilize a VO. The UA must be operated within the VLOS of the PIC and VO at all times. The VO may be used to satisfy the VLOS requirement as long as the PIC always maintains VLOS capability. The VO and PIC must be able to communicate verbally at all times; electronic messaging or texting is not permitted during flight operations. The PIC must be designated before the flight and cannot transfer his or her designation for the duration of the flight. The PIC must ensure that the VO can perform the duties required of the VO.7. All operations must utilize a visual observer (VO). The UA must be operated within the visual line of sight (VLOS) of the VO at all times. The VO must use human vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses to see the UA. The VO, the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS, and the PIC must be able to communicate verbally at all times. Electronic messaging or texting is not permitted during flight operations. The PIC must be designated before the flight and cannot transfer his or her designation for the duration of the flight. The PIC must ensure that the VO can perform the duties required of the VO. Students receiving instruction or observing an operation as part of their instruction may not serve as visual observers.
10. This exemption, the List of Approved Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) under Section 333 at regulatory docket FAA–2007–3330 at www.regulations.gov, and all documents needed to operate the UAS and conduct its operations in accordance with the conditions and limitations stated in this grant of exemption, are hereinafter referred to as the operating documents. The operating documents must be accessible during UAS operations and made available to the Administrator upon request. If a discrepancy exists between the conditions and limitations in this exemption and the procedures outlined in the operating documents, the conditions and limitations herein take precedence and must be followed. Otherwise, the operator must follow the procedures as outlined in its operating documents. The operator may update or revise its operating documents. It is the operator’s responsibility to track such revisions and present updated and revised documents to the Administrator or any law enforcement official upon request. The operator must also present updated and revised documents if it petitions for extension or amendment to this grant of exemption. If the operator determines that any update or revision would affect the basis upon which the FAA granted this exemption, then the operator must petition for an amendment to its grant of exemption. The FAA’s UAS Integration Office may be contacted if questions arise regarding updates or revisions to the operating documents8. This exemption, the List of Approved Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) under Section 333 at regulatory docket FAA-2007-3330 at www.regulations.gov, all previous grant(s) of exemption, and all documents needed to operate the UAS and conduct its operations in accordance with the Conditions and Limitations stated in this exemption, are hereinafter referred to as the operating documents. The operating documents must be accessible during UAS operations and made available to the Administrator upon request. If a discrepancy exists between the Conditions and Limitations in this exemption, the applicable ATO-issued COA, and the procedures outlined in the operating documents, the most restrictive conditions, limitations, or procedures apply and must be followed. The operator may update or revise its operating documents as necessary. The operator is responsible for tracking revisions and presenting updated and revised documents to the Administrator or any law enforcement official upon request. The operator must also present updated and revised documents if it petitions for extension or amendment to this exemption. If the operator determines that any update or revision would affect the basis upon which the FAA granted this exemption, then the operator must petition for an amendment to its exemption. The FAA’s UAS Integration Office may be contacted if questions arise regarding updates or revisions to the operating documents.
11. Any UAS that has undergone maintenance or alterations that affect the UAS operation or flight characteristics, e.g., replacement of a flight critical component, must undergo a functional test flight prior to conducting further operations under this exemption. Functional test flights may only be conducted by a PIC with a VO and must remain at least 500 feet from other people. The functional test flight must be conducted in such a manner so as to not pose an undue hazard to persons and property.9. Any UAS that has undergone maintenance or alterations that affect the UAS operation or flight characteristics, e.g. replacement of a flight critical component, must undergo a functional test flight prior to conducting further operations under this exemption. Functional test flights may only be conducted by a PIC with a VO and essential flight personnel only and must remain at least 500 feet from all other people. The functional test flight must be conducted in such a manner so as to not pose an undue hazard to persons and property.
Same

 

 

10. The operator is responsible for maintaining and inspecting the UAS to ensure that it is in a condition for safe operation.
Same11. Prior to each flight, the PIC must conduct a pre-flight inspection and determine the UAS is in a condition for safe flight. The pre-flight inspection must account for all potential discrepancies, e.g. inoperable components, items, or equipment. If the inspection reveals a condition that affects the safe operation of the UAS, the aircraft is prohibited from operating until the necessary maintenance has been performed and the UAS is found to be in a condition for safe flight.
Same as 14 and 15.12. The operator must follow the UAS manufacturer’s maintenance, overhaul,

replacement, inspection, and life limit requirements for the aircraft and aircraft

components. Each UAS operated under this exemption must comply with all

manufacturer safety bulletins.

3. PIC certification: Under this exemption, a PIC must hold either an airline transport, commercial, private, recreational, or sport pilot certificate. The PIC must also hold a current FAA airman medical certificate or a valid U.S. driver’s license issued by a state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, a territory, a possession, or the Federal Government. The PIC must also meet the flight review requirements specified in 14 CFR § 61.56 in an aircraft in which the PIC is rated on his or her pilot certificate.13. PIC certification: Under this grant of exemption, a PIC must hold either an airline transport, commercial, private, recreational, or sport pilot certificate. The PIC must also hold a current FAA airman medical certificate or a valid U.S. driver’s license issued by a state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, a territory, a possession, or the Federal government. The PIC must also meet the flight review requirements specified in 14 CFR § 61.56 in an aircraft in which the PIC is rated on his or her pilot certificate.
4. PIC qualifications: The PIC must demonstrate the ability to safely operate the UAS in a manner consistent with how it will be operated under this exemption, including evasive and emergency maneuvers and maintaining appropriate distances from persons, vessels, vehicles, and structures before operating non-training, proficiency, or experience-building flights under this exemption. PIC qualification flight hours and currency may be logged in a manner consistent with 14 CFR § 61.51(b), however UAS pilots must not log this time in the same columns or categories as time accrued during manned flight. UAS flight time must not be recorded as part of total time.14. PIC qualifications: The PIC must demonstrate the ability to safely operate the UAS in a manner consistent with how it will be operated under this exemption, including evasive and emergency maneuvers and maintaining appropriate distances from persons, vessels, vehicles, and structures before conducting student training operations. Flights for the pilot’s own training, proficiency, or experience-building under this exemption may be conducted under this exemption. PIC qualification flight hours and currency may be logged in a manner consistent with 14 CFR § 61.51(b), however, UAS pilots must not log this time in the same columns or categories as time accrued during manned flight. UAS flight time must not be recorded as part of total time.
15. Training: The operator may conduct training operations when the trainer/instructor is qualified as a PIC under this exemption and designated as PIC for the entire duration of the flight operation. Students/trainees are considered direct participants in the flight operation when manipulating the flight controls of a small UAS and are not required to hold any airman certificate. The student/trainees may be the manipulators of the controls; however, the PIC must directly supervise their conduct and the PIC must also have sufficient override capability to immediately take direct control of the small UAS and safely abort the operation if necessary, including taking any action necessary to ensure safety of other aircraft as well as persons and property on the ground in the event of unsafe maneuvers and/or emergencies for example landing in an empty area away from people and property.
Same

 

16. Under all situations, the PIC is responsible for the safety of the operation. The PIC is also responsible for meeting all applicable Conditions and Limitations as prescribed in this exemption and ATO-issued COA, and operating in accordance with the operating documents. All training operations must be conducted during dedicated training sessions and may or may not be for compensation or hire. The operation must be conducted with a dedicated VO who has no collateral duties and is not the PIC during the flight. The VO must maintain visual sight of the aircraft at all times during flight operations without distraction in accordance with the Conditions and Limitations below. Furthermore, the PIC must operate the UA not closer than 500 feet to any nonparticipating person without exception.
Same17. UAS operations may not be conducted during night, as defined in 14 CFR § 1.1. All operations must be conducted under visual meteorological conditions (VMC). Flights under special visual flight rules (SVFR) are not authorized.
Same18. The UA may not be operated less than 500 feet below or less than 2,000 feet horizontally from a cloud or when visibility is less than 3 statute miles from the PIC.
Same19. For tethered UAS operations, the tether line must have colored pennants or streamers attached at not more than 50 foot intervals beginning at 150 feet above the surface of the earth and visible from at least 1 mile. This requirement for pennants or streamers is not applicable when operating exclusively below the top of and within 250 feet of any structure, so long as the UA operation does not obscure the lighting of the structure.
Same20. For UAS operations where GPS signal is necessary to safely operate the UA, the PIC

must immediately recover/land the UA upon loss of GPS signal.

Same21. If the PIC loses command or control link with the UA, the UA must follow a predetermined route to either reestablish link or immediately recover or land.
22. The PIC must abort the flight operation if circumstances or emergencies that could potentially degrade the safety of persons or property arise. The PIC must terminate flight operations without causing undue hazard to persons or property in the air or on the ground.22. The PIC must abort the flight operation if unpredicted circumstances or emergencies that could potentially degrade the safety of persons or property arise. The PIC must terminate flight operations without causing undue hazard to persons or property in the air or on the ground.
Same23. The PIC is prohibited from beginning a flight unless (considering wind and forecast weather conditions) there is enough available power for the UA to conduct the intended operation and to operate after that for at least five minutes or with the reserve power recommended by the manufacturer if greater.
24. All aircraft operated in accordance with this exemption must be registered in accordance with 14 CFR part 47 or 48, and have identification markings in accordance with 14 CFR part 45, Subpart C or part 48. For applicability and implementation dates of part 48 see 80 FR 78594 (Dec. 16, 2015).24. All aircraft operated in accordance with this exemption must be registered in accordance with 14 CFR part 47 or 48, and have identification markings in accordance with 14 CFR part 45, Subpart C or part 48.
Same25. Documents used by the operator to ensure the safe operation and flight of the UAS and any documents required under 14 CFR §§ 91.9 and 91.203 must be available to the PIC at the Ground Control Station of the UAS any time the aircraft is operating. These documents must be made available to the Administrator or any law enforcement official upon request.
26. The UA must remain clear and give way to all manned aviation operations and activities at all times.26. The UA must remain clear of and give way to all manned aircraft at all times.
27. The UAS may not be operated by the PIC from any moving device or vehicle.27. The UAS may not be operated by the PIC from any moving device or vehicle.
28. All flight operations must be conducted at least 500 feet from all persons, vessels, vehicles, and structures unless when operating:

a. Over or near people directly participating in the operation of the UAS. People directly participating in the operation of the UAS include the PIC, VO, and other consenting personnel that are directly participating in the safe operation of the UA.

b. Near but not over people directly participating in the intended purpose of the UAS operation. People directly participating in the intended purpose of the UAS must be briefed on the potential risks and acknowledge and consent to those risks. Operators must notify the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) with a plan of activities at least 72 hours prior to flight operations.

c. Same

d. Same

28. All flight operations must be conducted at least 500 feet from all persons, vessels, vehicles, and structures unless when operating:

a. Over or near people directly participating in the operation of the UAS. People directly participating in the operation of the UAS include the student manipulating the controls, PIC, VO, and other consenting personnel that are directly participating in the safe operation of the UA.

b. Near but not over people directly participating in the intended purpose of the UAS operation. People directly participating in the intended purpose of the UAS (including students in a class not manipulating the controls of the UAS), who must be briefed on the potential risks and acknowledge and consent to those risks. Operators must notify the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) with a plan of activities at least 72 hours prior to flight operations.

c. Near nonparticipating persons: Except as provided in subsections (a) and (b) of this section, a UA may only be operated closer than 500 feet to a person when barriers or structures are present that sufficiently protect that person from the UA and/or debris or hazardous materials such as fuel or chemicals in the event of an accident. Under these conditions, the operator must ensure that the person remains under such protection for the duration of the operation. If a situation arises where the person leaves such protection and is within 500 feet of the UA, flight operations must cease immediately in a manner that does not cause undue hazard to persons.

d. Near vessels, vehicles, and structures. Prior to conducting operations the operator must obtain permission from a person with the legal authority over any vessels, vehicles or structures that will be within 500 feet of the UA during operations. The PIC must make a safety assessment of the risk of operating closer to those objects and determined that it does not present an undue hazard.

Same29. All operations shall be conducted over private or controlled-access property with permission from a person with legal authority to grant access. Permission will be obtained for each flight to be conducted.
30. Any incident, accident, or flight operation that transgresses the lateral or vertical boundaries of the operational area as defined by the applicable COA must be reported to the FAA’s UAS Integration Office within 24 hours. Accidents and incidents must be reported to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in accordance with 49 CFR § 830.5 per instructions contained on the NTSB Web site: www.ntsb.gov.30. Any incident, accident, or flight operation that transgresses the lateral or vertical boundaries of the operational area as defined by the applicable COA must be reported to the FAA’s UAS Integration Office within 24 hours. Accidents must be reported to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in accordance with its UAS accident reporting requirements.
SameFor operations conducted closer than 500 feet to people directly participating in the intended purpose of the operation, not protected by barriers, the following additional conditions and limitations apply:

31. The operator must have an operations manual that contains at least the following items, although it is not restricted to these items.

a. Operator name, address, and telephone number.

b. Distribution and Revision. Procedures for revising and distributing the operations manual to ensure that it is kept current. Revisions must comply with the applicable Conditions and Limitations in this exemption.

c. Persons Authorized. Specify criteria for designating individuals as directly participating in the safe operation of the UAS. The operations manual must include procedures to ensure that all operations are conducted at distances from persons in accordance with the Conditions and Limitations of the exemption.

d. Plan of Activities. The operations manual must include procedures for the submission of a written plan of activities.

e. Permission to Operate. The operations manual shall specify requirements and procedures that the operator will use to obtain permission to operate over property or near vessels, vehicles, and structures in accordance with this exemption.

f. Security. The manual must specify the method of security that will be used to ensure the safety of nonparticipating persons. This should also include procedures that will be used to stop activities when unauthorized persons, vehicles, or aircraft enter the operations area, or for any other reason, in the interest of safety.

g. Briefing of persons directly participating in the intended operation. Procedures must be included to brief personnel and participating persons on the risks involved, emergency procedures, and safeguards to be followed during the operation.

h. Personnel directly participating in the safe operation of the UAS Minimum Requirements. In accordance with this exemption, the operator must specify the minimum requirements for all flight personnel in the operating manual. The PIC at a minimum will be required to meet the certification standards specified in this exemption.

i. Communications. The operations manual must contain procedures to provide communications capability with participants during the operation. The operator can use oral, visual, or radio communications as along as the participants are apprised of the current status of the operation.

j. Accident Notification. The operations manual must contain procedures for notification and reporting of accidents in accordance with this exemption. In accordance with this exemption, the operating manual and all other operating documents must be accessible to the PIC during UAS operations.

32. At least 72 hours prior to operations, the operator must submit a written Plan of Activities to the local FSDO having jurisdiction over the proposed operating area.

The Plan of Activities must include at least the following:

a. Dates and times for all flights. For seasonal or long-term operations, this can include the beginning and end dates of the timeframe, the approximate frequency (e.g., daily, every weekend), and what times of the day operations will occur. A new plan of activities must be submitted prior to each season or period of operations.

b. Same

c. Make, model, and serial or N-Number of each UAS to be used.

d. Same

e. Same

f. Same

g. A description of the flight activity, including maps or diagrams of the area over which operations will be conducted and the altitudes essential to accomplish the operation. In accordance with this exemption, the Plan of Activities and all other operating documents must be accessible to the PIC during UAS operations. A new Plan of Activities must be submitted should there be any changes to items (a) through (g).

32. At least 72 hours prior to operations, the operator must submit a written Plan of Activities to the local FSDO having jurisdiction over the proposed operating area. The Plan of Activities must include at least the following:

a. Dates and times for all flights. For seasonal or long-term operations, this can include the beginning and end dates of the timeframe, the approximate frequency (e.g. daily, every weekend, etc.), and what times of the day operations will occur. A new plan of activities must be submitted prior to each season or period of operations.

b. Name and phone number of the on-site person responsible for the operation.

c. Make, model, and serial or FAA registration number of each UAS to be used.

d. Name and certificate number of each UAS PIC involved in the operations.

e. A statement that the operator has obtained permission from property owners.Upon request, the operator will make available a list of those who gave

permission.

f. Signature of exemption holder or representative stating the plan is accurate.

g. A description of the flight activity, including maps or diagrams of the area over which operations will be conducted and the altitudes essential to accomplish the operation.

 

How do I check my docket to see if I have this FAA Section 333 exemption amendment?

  1. Go to regulations.gov
  2. Type in your name.
    1. On the left hand side you can narrow your search by typing in the Agency section “FAA.”
  3. Find one of the pieces of paperwork you filed.
  4. Click the Open Docket Folder at the top left.
  5. Search your docket for the newest entry. It should be labeled “U.S. DOT/FAA – Decision/Amendment.”
  6. Click it and print out the PDF to keep with you as part of your operating documents.

 

Conclusion

This will help some of the older 333 exemptions holders be more flexible in their operations.  Please take the time to carefully read the restrictions as they apply to you. If you need help understanding the provision, you need to renew your older 333, or you want a Part 107 waiver or authorization, contact me.

 

Interested in flying under Part 107 instead of the Section 333 Exemption? Check out these resources!


Jonathan Rupprecht

Mr. Rupprecht is an aviation attorney who focuses on drones. Read more about his background as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University grad, and legal author. He has had media appearances on Forbes, Newsweek, Politico, NPR, Marketwatch, The Independent, Motherboard, and other sources. Feel free to send Jonathan a message here.

Poms and Associates Interview

I did an interview with Poms and Associates. In the interview, I discussed the types of insurance and why a drone operator would need insurance.

Expert Interview Series: Jonathan Rupprecht of JRupprechtLaw.com About Drone Law


Jonathan Rupprecht

Mr. Rupprecht is an aviation attorney who focuses on drones. Read more about his background as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University grad, and legal author. He has had media appearances on Forbes, Newsweek, Politico, NPR, Marketwatch, The Independent, Motherboard, and other sources. Feel free to send Jonathan a message here.

A Quick Comment on a Forbes Article on Drones

I wanted to add a few points on the “Disruptive Regulation, or ‘Mother May I?’” section of the recent Forbe’s article Drone Disruption: The Stakes, The Players, And The Opportunities.

Much of the focus of the VC money is on the technology with very little being put into regulatory R & D and interacting with the already existing regulatory structure. Great. People start thinking about lobbying to get around the regulatory problems by getting Congress to give the FAA a special type of legal authority, but once again, we are back at the regulatory R & D point because that new special authority is going to have to assimilate and interact with all the other provisions of the already existing regulatory structure.

On top of the lack of VC money going into the legal R & D area, many of the large companies are being represented by lawyers dabbling in the drone law who are not qualified. One great example is where one law firm wrote an exemption for their client for a pixhawk flight controller, not an aircraft. Let that sink in for a second. You get exemptions for aircraft, not exemptions for parts of an aircraft, which showed the inferior drone 101 knowledge of that firm. That firm later picked up a multi-billion dollar massive global company as their client for another 333 exemption. Another example is of legal malpractice where a different lawyer at a different law firm negligently didn’t complete certain paperwork for their client’s exemption and the exemption was denied, which put the client in a bind because the client could not legally operate their drone commercially for months and months until approval. That attorney is now trying to work with other large companies.

There is also a lot of flux in the law and the FAA guidance. The FAA is relying on their “guidance,” not law, and when they do use regulations, it is because they arbitrarily “activated” regulations that had not historically been applied to drones. Basically, everyone is violating a regulation when they fly their drone. Even flying according to their own guidance documents alone is not compatible with the regulations! The FAA uses this to make you comply with their guidance, because if you don’t, they come after you for violating the regulations, not guidance.

Currently there is a lawsuit going on in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals (the court right below the U.S. Supreme Court) challenging the FAA’s drone registration regulations. My firm is assisting John Taylor, the Plaintiff. Basically, the FAA went too quickly and did not do all they were legally required to do to create the registration regulations. On top of that, they also “activated” some registration regulations that had not been historically applied to drones. There is a chance those regulations with be thrown out by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals because they were illegally created – which is going to cause things to slow down because the FAA will make sure all their ducks are in a row. A more detailed analysis of the legal problems with the drone registration regulations is here.

This is going to be interesting in how this all plays out since the FAA is trying to get out the microdrone rule soon.

I hope this helps.  🙂


Jonathan Rupprecht

Mr. Rupprecht is an aviation attorney who focuses on drones. Read more about his background as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University grad, and legal author. He has had media appearances on Forbes, Newsweek, Politico, NPR, Marketwatch, The Independent, Motherboard, and other sources. Feel free to send Jonathan a message here.

Alleged Crash Between an Airplane and a Drone

It was reported that on Thursday morning a drone and a 1960’s Cessna 172 collided in the air over Costa Rica. It is alleged that the Cessna hit the drone with its right wing strut. This is NOT the wing but the strut supporting the wing. The result was chipped paint on the strut. Superficially, it looks like most of other struts I observed when I was regularly out on the flight line as a flight instructor. If you are wondering why it is normal to see paint chipping, this is because rocks sometimes get blown up during the run-up process of airplanes and hit the aircraft.

helicopter

In the United States, recreational drone flyers should stay below 400 feet above the ground. It is better to stay as low as you can because agriculture pilots and helicopter pilots sometimes fly very low sometimes, almost sneaking up on drone pilots who do not have enough time to react. I compiled a list of FAA guidance documents regarding recreational flyers, excluding 91-57A, in one of the chapters of my book Drones: Their Many Civilian Uses and the U.S. Laws Surrounding Them.

Now all you recreational flyers out there calm down. I know many anti-drone folks will use this as a perfect example to say that drones should be heavily regulated before “they take down an airliner,” but I think this is a perfect reminder of how much we need to educate new flyers on how to operate safely.

Unfortunately, as I explained in a previous blog post, the FAA is currently not allowing commercial drone flight instruction under a public COA or a section 333 exemption. We as recreational flyers should attempt to pick up the safety slack promote safety while we still have freedom to fly.

Before we jump to conclusions and fault the recreational drone flyers, let’s ask some questions.

  • How do you know that the pilot was paying attention? There are many accidents that have been caused by the pilots not paying attention. It is a two way street for both parties to see and avoid other aircraft.
  • How do we know this is a recreational drone and not a drone operated by the government? There seems to have been some incidents of the military or even police using drones unsafely. The Academy of Model Aeronautics published a study on the FAA’s drone data and said, “In perhaps the most surprising example, on August 18, 2015, the Los Angeles Police Department notified the Inglewood Police Department that a drone the latter agency was flying over a crime scene ‘needed to come down.’ The drone was flying two miles from the approach end of a runway at LAX.”
  • How do we know that it was the drone operator flying the drone higher than he should have and not a fly away? Could the drone been manufactured incorrectly? Was there some type of GPS interference?
  • How do we know it was a drone? The internet was freaking out that a drone collided with an aircraft but it later turned out to be a bird.
  • Do we have any evidence there was a collision with a drone other than some chipped paint and a pilot’s testimony?
  • Do we have a drone wreck or pieces of the drone?

We need to investigate further and only make determinations when there are hard facts, not just chipped paint and a story.


Jonathan Rupprecht

Mr. Rupprecht is an aviation attorney who focuses on drones. Read more about his background as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University grad, and legal author. He has had media appearances on Forbes, Newsweek, Politico, NPR, Marketwatch, The Independent, Motherboard, and other sources. Feel free to send Jonathan a message here.

Two Ways the FAA Can Immediately Help Promote Drone Safety in the National Airspace System

drone safety first sign

Since the House Subcommittee on Aviation is having a hearing on October 7th on “Ensuring Aviation Safety in the Era of Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” I was inspired to write about two things that the FAA can do to immediately promote drone safety.

The FAA can (1) put all the recreational aircraft guidance down in one place and (2)  get FAA certificated pilots involved in the industry.

 

(1) Put Everything Down in One Place.

The FAA has issued advisory circulars and guidance on small unmanned recreational aircraft since 1981.  Over the years the message has not been consistent and at times even contradictory. To illustrate the inconsistency and contradiction, I have compiled this chart on recreational aircraft guidelines. The FAA published their (1) Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, published (2) Law Enforcement Guidance for Suspected Unauthorized UAS Operations, partnered with (3) the Know Before You Fly campaign, published (4) the “What Can I Do With My Model Aircraft?” webpage on the FAA’s website, published (5) Advisory Circular 91-57,  and published (6) an Updated Advisory Circular 91-57 (“91-57A”).

 

Compilation of Recreational Aircraft Guidelines

The aircraft is flown strictly for hobby or recreational use. You can’t make money off the flying incidentally or directly. Sources:  (1),(2),(4),(6).
The aircraft is operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization. Sources: (1),(2),(3),(6).
The aircraft is limited to not more than 55 pounds [Take Off Weight] unless otherwise certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization. Sources: (1),(2),(4),(6).
The aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft. See also § 91.113. Sources: (1),(2),(3),(4),(5),(6).
When flown within 5 miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft provides the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport) with prior notice of the operation (model aircraft operators flying from a permanent location within 5 miles of an airport should establish a mutually-agreed upon operating procedure with the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower (when an air traffic facility is located at the airport)). AC 91-57 said 3 miles. Sources: (1),(2),(3),(4),(6).
Do not fly your model in a “careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.” Sources: (2); Section 336(c) of the FMRA; 14 C.F.R. § 91.13, (6).
Do not fly the aircraft beyond visual line-of-sight. Sources: (1),(3),(4),(6) FRMA § 336(c)(2).
“The aircraft must be visible at all times to the operator[.]”Source: (1).
“[T]he operator must use his or her own natural vision (which includes vision corrected by standard eyeglasses or contact lenses) to observe the aircraft.” You cannot use “vision-enhancing devices, such as binoculars, night vision goggles, powered vision magnifying devices, and goggles designed to provide a ‘first-person view’ from the model.” Source: (1).
“[P]eople other than the operator may not be used in lieu of the operator for maintaining visual line of sight.” No daisy chain. Source: (1).
The FAA mentioned in their Model Rule Interpretation § 91.119(c) which says do not operate the aircraft in a non-congested area “closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.” Model aircraft “may still pose a risk to persons and property on the ground warranting enforcement action when conducted unsafely.” However, in the Know Before You Fly campaign which the FAA partnered with, it says, “Do not intentionally fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles, and remain at least 25 feet away from individuals and vulnerable property.” This distance requirement is unclear. Sources: (1) and/or? (3).
Fly no higher than 400 feet above ground level and remain below any surrounding obstacles when possible. Sources: (3),(5),(6).
The “operating site that is of sufficient distance from populated areas. The selected site should be away from noise sensitive areas such as parks, schools, hospitals, churches, etc.” Source: (5).
“Do not operate model aircraft in the presence of spectators until the aircraft is successfully flight tested and proven airworthy.” Source: (5).
“Do not fly in adverse weather conditions such as in high winds or reduced visibility.” Source: (3).
“Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.” Source: (3).
“Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, government facilities, etc.” Source: (3).
“Check and follow all local laws and ordinances before flying over private property.” Source: (3).
“Do not conduct surveillance or photograph persons in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without the individual’s permission.” Source: (3).
“[M]ust comply with any Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR).”(1),(6)
“Model aircraft must not operate in Prohibited Areas, Special Flight Rule Areas or, the Washington National Capital Region Flight Restricted Zone, without specific authorization.” (1),(6).

 

As you can see, the FAA has a patchwork of guidance on this area. We need to have all the information in one place and be done with it. The FAA needs to take the pieces and sew them all together so recreational flyers know what is exactly required of them as opposed to them having to piece together the hodgepodge guidance.

Furthermore, it would be helpful to include all the regulations that the FAA believes recreational operators are required to comply with in one place; otherwise, a guy who bought a Phantom off Amazon is going to have no clue about the regulations or even where to start!

 

(2) We Need to Get FAA Certificated Pilots Involved in the Industry

We can do this two ways: (A) take the pilot license suspension/revocation possibility off the table, for the time being, for individuals who have pilot licenses and (B) allow commercial flight operations for flight instructing.

(A) Removing the Possibility of a FAA Pilot License Suspension/Revocation

Pilots stand to lose a lot if they get in trouble with the FAA. Not only can they be fined, they can also get their pilot license suspended or revoked. This creates not a safer environment but actually decreases safety, because the most highly experienced and knowledgeable group of people who can operate safely in the national airspace are on the sidelines in fear of losing their licenses or in the worst case, their livelihood. This creates a “vacuum” of knowledge and also a vacuum in the culture of drone operators. You can still keep the licensed pilots in check with large civil penalties.

(B) Allow Commercial Flight Instruction Under the Section 333 Exemptions

Update: Kansas State University received an exemption to conduct flight instruction with drones.

One of my clients received this statement in their exemption from the FAA, “The petitioner also requested authority to conduct UAS training. At this time, the FAA is unable to authorize UAS operations for training until a further assessment is completed. When the FAA completes its review, we will proceed accordingly and no further action will be required by the petitioner. However, the petitioner is permitted to train its own pilot in commands and visual observers in accordance with condition no. 14 and the other conditions and limitations in this exemption.”  The FAA is not exempting individuals or businesses to do commercial flight instruction.

Furthermore, the FAA clarified in an opinion that public universities are prohibited from obtaining public COA’s for education because education is not considered a “core function” of government.

Since FAA certificated pilots are currently prohibited from commercially doing flight instruction of drones,  how do individuals or businesses get practical flight instruction? Are they expected to just go out and fly at some uninhabited baseball field and learn by trial and error (crash)? There is only one FAA approved flight school for drones in the US and the rest are just all illegally operating.


Jonathan Rupprecht

Mr. Rupprecht is an aviation attorney who focuses on drones. Read more about his background as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University grad, and legal author. He has had media appearances on Forbes, Newsweek, Politico, NPR, Marketwatch, The Independent, Motherboard, and other sources. Feel free to send Jonathan a message here.

Nope to Flying Near the Pope

Quick Summary of How to Check for TFR’s.

  • Check to see if there is a TFR in effect for your area by going to www.tfr.faa.gov, using www.airmap.io, or calling 1800-WX-BRIEF.
  • If there is a TFR in your area, find out WHEN it starts and when it ends.

The FAA says you cannot fly near the Pope. How does the FAA let people know about this?

The FAA issues a notice to airman (NOTAM) alerting the public of a temporary flight restriction (TFR). You can view them on this website.  http://tfr.faa.gov/tfr2/list.html  You can select your state and see what is active or what is going to become active.

no drones sign

no drones

What is a TFR?

The FAA defines a TFR as “a regulatory action issued via the U.S. Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) system to restrict certain aircraft from operating within a defined area, on a temporary basis, to protect persons or property in the air or on the ground.” There are different types of TFR’s and they are listed out in the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR’s).

  1. Section 91.137, Temporary Flight Restrictions in the Vicinity of Disaster/Hazard Areas;
  2. Section 91.138, Temporary Flight Restrictions in National Disaster Areas in the State of Hawaii;
  3. Section 91.139, Emergency Air Traffic Rules;
  4. Section 91.141, Flight Restrictions in the Proximity of the Presidential and Other Parties;
  5. Section 91.143, Flight Limitation in the Proximity of Space Flight Operations;
  6. Section 91.144, Abnormally High Barometric Pressure Conditions;
  7. Section 91.145, Management of Aircraft Operations in the Vicinity of Aerial Demonstrations and Major Sporting Events; and
  8. Section 99.7, Special Security Instructions.

A TFR is basically a restrictions on the airspace so the FAA can keep things safe. These TFR’s are NOT always a complete ban on all types of flying. It just means only authorized individuals can fly in those area. If you are interested in doing some commercial drone work around sporting event TFR’s, you can contact me about getting those approvals and special COA’s.

So what type of TFR does the Pope have?

The Pope’s NOTAM actual text TFR of Philadelphia says:

“A) THE FAA MAY TAKE ADMINISTRATIVE ACTION, INCLUDING IMPOSING CIVIL PENALTIES AND THE SUSPENSION OR REVOCATION OF AIRMEN CERTIFICATES; OR B) THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT MAY PURSUE CRIMINAL CHARGES, INCLUDING CHARGES UNDER TITLE 49 OF THE UNITED STATES CODE, SECTION 46307; OR C) THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT MAY USE DEADLY FORCE AGAINST THE AIRBORNE AIRCRAFT, IF IT IS DETERMINED THAT THE AIRCRAFT POSES AN IMMINENT SECURITY THREAT.”

The FAA cited 14 C.F.R. section 99.7 as justification for the issuance of the TFR and that regulation says:

Ҥ99.7 Special security instructions.
Each person operating an aircraft in an ADIZ or Defense Area must, in addition to the applicable rules of this part, comply with special security instructions issued by the Administrator in the interest of national security, pursuant to agreement between the FAA and the Department of Defense, or between the FAA and a U.S. Federal security or intelligence agency.”

Regulation 99.7 was created under the authority given to the FAA by the US Congress in 49 U.S. Code § 40103(b)(3) which says:

“(3) To establish security provisions that will encourage and allow maximum use of the navigable air-space by civil aircraft consistent with national security, the Administrator, in consultation with the Secre-tary of Defense, shall—
(A) establish areas in the airspace the Administrator decides are necessary in the interest of national defense; and
(B) by regulation or order, restrict or prohibit flight of civil aircraft that the Administrator cannot identify, locate, and control with available facilities in those areas.”

So what happens if you fly into the Pope bubble?

49 U.S.C. § 46307 says:

A person that knowingly or willfully violates section 40103 (b)(3) of this title or a regulation prescribed or order issued under section 40103 (b)(3) shall be fined under title 18, imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.

Doug Hughes flew a gyrocopter onto the US Capitol lawn and he is being indicted. One of the charges listed § 43607 and § 40103(b)(3). Read the Douglas Hughes indictment.

How much is the fine?

18 U.S.C. § 3571 says:

“(a)IN GENERAL.—
A defendant who has been found guilty of an offense may be sentenced to pay a fine.
(b)FINES FOR INDIVIDUALS.—Except as provided in subsection (e) of this section, an indi-vidual who has been found guilty of an offense may be fined not more than the greatest of—[. . .]

(4)
for a misdemeanor resulting in death, not more than $250,000;
(5)
for a Class A misdemeanor that does not result in death, not more than $100,000; [. . . ]
(c)FINES FOR ORGANIZATIONS.—Except as provided in subsection (e) of this section, an or-ganization that has been found guilty of an offense may be fined not more than the greatest of—[. . .]
(4)
for a misdemeanor resulting in death, not more than $500,000;
(5)
for a Class A misdemeanor that does not result in death, not more than $200,000;”

We know it is a Class A misdemeanor because 18 U.S.C.  § 3559 says:

“(a)CLASSIFICATION.—An offense that is not specifically classified by a letter grade in the section defining it, is classified if the maximum term of imprisonment authorized is— [. . .]

(6) one year or less but more than six months, as a Class A misdemeanor;”

So there you have it folks. Flying near the Pope could get you punished with jail for up to one year and fined a whole bunch of cash.  I don’t make the rules, I just help people fly drones according to what the FAA says.


Jonathan Rupprecht

Mr. Rupprecht is an aviation attorney who focuses on drones. Read more about his background as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University grad, and legal author. He has had media appearances on Forbes, Newsweek, Politico, NPR, Marketwatch, The Independent, Motherboard, and other sources. Feel free to send Jonathan a message here.

Does a drone operator really need a pilot license?

Does a drone operator need a pilot license to fly the drone?

Update: I’ve edited some of this because most people are focusing more on the license requirement and not the lack of aeronautical knowledge some drone operators have.

My point: all drone operators, recreational and commercial, should have a clear understanding of the national airspace system. I’m not advocating for all commercial drone operations to be required to have a sport pilot, or higher, certificate.

Here are my thoughts.

The FAA believes they are statutorily not allowed to exempt individuals from the pilot certificate. The FAA did not write those statutes, Congress did and they didn’t change them. (Yes, there is a whole fun discussion we could have regarding the pilot license requirement being arbitrarily applied to commercial drone operators while not to model aircraft operators, but that is not what I’m focusing on here.)

I’m going to focus specifically on what skills are required for a commercial drone operator to operate safely in the national airspace system.

The typical response to the license requirement is “I’ve met many licensed pilots and they cannot fly a drone as well as me.”  Yes, a licensed pilot most likely cannot just pick up a drone and fly like you, but you could not even fly as good as you can now when you first started flying drones!  Furthermore, since we are comparing skills, let’s change the common objection slightly to “I’ve met many [model aircraft] pilots and they cannot fly a drone [in the NAS safely] as well as me.” Moreover, I acknowledge that some of the things required to obtain a sport, or higher, pilot certificate do not really in any way translate over to drone flying. Let’s fix this question.

Does a drone operator need to know about airspace and how to read a sectional to fly a drone in the national airspace system?

If you are a drone operator and don’t have a pilot license, how would you respond to that question? (Yes, I agree with you that if you fly your drone really low to the ground, you most likely aren’t going to cause many safety issues.)

Here are scenarios/questions, to provoke thought, for the non-licensed drone pilots wanting to operate in the national airspace system.

Pink X – A farmer wants you to take an aerial shot of his mango farm at 400ft. Can you fly here? What airspace are you in?

Green X – A cell tower company wants you to inspect their towers here. Can you do this operation? What is the height of the towers? Any airport problems? What airspace are you in?

Light Blue X – A construction development company (or real estate broker) wants you to take aerial shots at the altitude corresponding to the view the apartment at the new planned high rise would get. How high can you fly? Are there any potential problems here? What airspace are you in?

Small Red X – Let’s say someone hires you to inspect a commercial building’s roof here. Do you have to talk to anyone on the radio here? If so, who? What is the frequency? What is the big problem with operating here? How high can you fly? What airspace are you in?

CLICK ON THE PICTURE

Airspace

Food for thought guys.

What makes a good commercial drone operator? Stick skills and knowing how to safely operate in the NAS. 🙂

Great Resources:

 


Jonathan Rupprecht

Mr. Rupprecht is an aviation attorney who focuses on drones. Read more about his background as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University grad, and legal author. He has had media appearances on Forbes, Newsweek, Politico, NPR, Marketwatch, The Independent, Motherboard, and other sources. Feel free to send Jonathan a message here.

Interesting Drone Law Question

I saw this question posted on the internet today. “Can the FBI legally park a small drone 500 feet over your house with FLIR technology and watch every move everyone in the house makes?”

Here are my thoughts and opinions.

This question has multiple issues but the big ones are (1) FBI being compliant with what the FAA says, (2) the FBI being compliant with what the DOJ says, (3) was there a search for 4th Amendment purposes, and (4) are there any state laws that require a warrant for this type of activity?

 

The FAA and DOJ have issued guidance on this area.

 

The FBI is a government agency and such they are only required to comply with certain parts of the regulations. They do not have eyeballs on board the drone so they must seek a waiver to comply with the regulations (specifically the “see and avoid” requirement in Part 91).  The FBI applies to the FAA to obtain a Certificate of Waiver. The FAA will give them a COA and they will have to operate under the restrictions given.

 

The DOJ and President Obama have issued guidance regarding the use of drones. The Presidential memo addresses the DOJ use of drones and privacy rights. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/15/presidential-memorandum-promoting-economic-competitiveness-while-safegua Also, the DOJ issued guidance for the FBI which is located here. http://www.justice.gov/file/441266/download  There would need to be some more investigation to find out if the drone use was in compliance with those two documents and whether any violation would likely change anything.

Lastly, was there a search that violated the 4th Amendment?  This area needs to be analyzed under the plain view doctrine and also under Kyllo which discussed FLIR technology and the 4th Amendment.

You should see the case of Florida v. Riley which is a US Supreme Court case which held that a police helicopter at 400ft had a lawful right to be where it was and observe the marijuana. If the FBI drone has a COA and they were at an altitude lawful under the regulations, they had a right to be there observing whatever they wanted to observe.

The next question would be was the use of a FLIR camera a “search” under the 4th Amendment even though the drone is in a lawful place?

The use of FLIR technology does not allow anyone to see INSIDE the house. It would only show a temperature gradient of the OUTSIDE of the house which could show up warm if there is a grow operation in the house.  Kyllo v. United States dealt with law enforcement using thermal imaging and the US Supreme Court looked at the equipment and it was a determining fact that the FLIR equipment was “not in general public use[.]”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyllo_v._United_States
Fast forward to today where they have handheld FLIR cameras for your iPhone for $150!  http://www.amazon.com/FLIR-ONE-Thermal-Imager-iPhone/dp/B00K0PXFB6  I think this case might be decided differently if it came up again because the expectation of privacy is currently diminishing in this area.

Is there a state law requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before conducting this type of operation?  Many states have started passing laws in this area requiring warrants. This creates the problem of the introduction of illegally obtained evidence, under state law, into a federal court for a criminal prosecution. This brings up all sorts of sub-issues.