Are You Ready For Your FAA UAS Site Visit?

FAA ramp check

Dr Joseph Davis, Captain, USMC (RET), Remote Pilot and Partner for Davion LLC

Visit? What visits and when? Part 107.7 discusses the inspection, testing, and demonstration of compliance with FAA regulations with regard to UAS. When are they coming? Good question! Now is the time to get ready—but if you are doing what is required of Part 107, and other FAA regulations, you may be ready. These FAA UAS site visits are not just for commercial 333/107 operators but also include:

  • Public Aircraft Operations. Public aircraft operations are operated under the operational control of a public entity (city police, fire department, state type FEMA, etc.).
  • Civil Aircraft Operations. Civil aircraft operations include model aircraft, part 107, Section 333 exemptions, and certified UAS.
  • Model – Recreational Only. Model – recreational only includes education at an accredited institution.
  • Part 107. Part 107 operations are the furtherance of a business, nonprofit, or commercial within the limitations of part 107.
  • Section 333 Exemptions. Section 333 exemptions are the furtherance of a business, nonprofit, or commercial within the limitations of the exemption.

Of course, you have heard it said the “the devil is in the details” and this can probably be said for a site visit by the FAA for your commercial drone operations. One cannot just read the Part 107 to ensure they are ready for a site visit, just as you can’t study the Part 107 and expect to pass your remote pilot certification. Prior to Part 107 implementation commercial drone operations were conducted under Section 333 exemptions (and now can be an either/or) as long as you have the appropriate license (remote pilot license or private pilot license).  

If you conducted commercial drone operations under a Section 333 exemption you had a plethora of paperwork, registrations for your sUAS, a 333 exemption number, a letter from the FAA concerning your 333 exemption with waiver for airworthiness certification, possibly a blanket Certificate of Authorization (COA), checklists for your hardware and equipment and mission planning as well as specifications of your drone. You would have a safety operation procedures and maintenance manual, a flight operations and training manual, flight logs for pilots, flight logs for drones, maintenance logs on those drones, maintenance records for drones and batteries, etc. These were manuals and paperwork you submitted to the FAA to get your 333 exemption approved. See where this is headed?

As a commercial 333 exempt operator, these are items (and much more), that you would already have (or should have) and will be needed to show to the aviation safety inspector (ASI). (You are keeping your books/logs/manuals up to date—right?) As a Part 107 operator, these are items, (and much more), that the FAA will be looking for. Then there is also a saying, “The proof is in the pudding!” But actually that is not true—you see the proof is actually in the eating of the pudding. I hope you pudding tastes great, and it can if you will start today by preparing for your FAA site visit. The FAA calls their inspections “UAS surveillance”, and their general objective is to gather information about whether the UAS and crew are sufficiently ready for the UAS flight, as well as check the effectiveness of the operator’s system, are conducting safe operation practices, and qualifications. What will the FAA be looking for? They will:

  • Evaluate each crewmember in the performance of their duties and responsibilities (have you been logging your training and missions, has your visual observer(s) (VO) been trained and briefed, and are you, or your remote pilot, ready to demonstrate your flying abilities?);
  • Assess the effectiveness of the operator’s training (they will look at your paperwork);
  • Assess the effectiveness, operational procedures, manual, or checklists (ditto on the paperwork look);
  • Assess the effectiveness of the operator’s equipment (is it in good working order, any frayed wires, cracks in body, landing gear or struts, props, latest firmware/software updates, etc.);
  • If applicable, to evaluate adherence to the conditions and limitations contained in the grant of the 333 exemption or any Part 107 waivers you may have applied for (and have copy(s) of approval);
  • To evaluate adherence to the requirements in the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) issued Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (CoW/A), if applicable; and
  • To evaluate the quality of maintenance and the degree of compliance with FAA policies and regulations (covers a wide area of not only Part 107 but also numerous other FAA orders and directives).

Will it be at my business you are probably thinking? Possibly, but may be at the job site on your next flight. The FAA is not required to coordinate their site visit but more than likely they will do so as they do not want to interfere with or delay your UAS operations. The ASI will let you know of the documents/records they will review during the visit (always good to keep all of your documents in a 3-ring binder (or several). The remote pilot in command (PIC), or an appropriate representative, should be present during the ASI’s visit. The FAA’s primary objective of the site visit is to provide their inspectors with the opportunity to evaluate your operation and how your crewmembers are operating a UAS. The FAA visit is their effective method for evaluating the operator’s ability to prepare both the UAS and crew for a mission.

The FAA visits will also determine whether the UAS and crew are adequately prepared for a flight, as well as evaluating the post-flight and/or turnaround procedures and crewmember(s) compliance with established procedures, regulations, and safe operating practices. So make sure your safety standards are up to date, your people are trained and briefed, and don’t forget your safety briefs and risk mitigation as your get ready. Did you do a pre-assessment of the flight area? Did you check the weather brief? If you aren’t using this service you should be, go to www.1800wxbrief.com to get your brief. Did you look at the sectional charts, check for any TFR’s? Do you have the frequencies and telephone numbers for the nearest airport? Did you contact the local police department/sheriff’s department as a courtesy? Do you need to contact adjacent land and/or homeowners of your flights? Are you doing any drone video/filming shoots? If you are a 333 exempt company did you get approval to do video work? If so have you followed the procedures addressed in your Motion Picture and Television Operations Manual (MPTOM) or your “Operations Manual” that may specify certain requirements? Has your VO been trained concerning air traffic and radio communications, and appropriate sections of the Airman’s Information Manual (AIM) per the conditions and limitations found in the 333 exemption, part 107 CoW, airspace authorization, etc? Are you performing your preflight risk assessment?

Have you had an accident (even a hard landing that busted something)? If a drone/UAS pilot is honest, most, if not all drone/UAS pilots have suffered some type of mishap, flyaway, system failure, tip over, lost link, or user error and account for a fast majority of insurance claims. Did you file a report with the FAA, NTSB, or NASA as appropriate? Even “flyaway” may be considered a flight control malfunction requiring immediate NTSB notification. Depending on the type of accident it may be a mandatory report! Remember, the ASI is not looking to hammer you. These are professionals that are there to help you, train/educate you as needed, audit/report AND establish a collaborative working relationship with you—the UAS operator. If you don’t know an answer tell them you don’t know or are not sure. That is okay, as they will certainly help you through this UAS surveillance audit and you can definitely use it as a learning experience. The FAA is not an entity to be feared but to let them come along beside you as a father-son teaching/learning experience. The ASI wants to set the stage for your continuous development in your flight operations as well as working towards a positive environment that fosters event reporting without fear of reprisal.

What kind of grade do I get? The ASI will debrief you and fully document his/her visit and the results will also be filed in the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) as well as the National Program Tracking and Reporting System (PTRS). The results will either be satisfactory, informational, or an unsatisfactory. Satisfactory means you meet FAA standards, informational means you need to do some work to bring your operation up to FAA standards. Unsatisfactory may result in your pilot’s license being temporarily suspended and your commercial business halted until another site visit can be made after you have had the opportunity to overcome the deficiencies.

Now is the time to start getting prepared for the site visit? Remember – drone accidents aren’t normally caused by unsafe drones, they are caused by unsafe pilots! Happy droning and KEEP IT SAFE!

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