The Drone Exemptions

A Trimble UX5 drone at a construction site. Credit: Trimble.
A Trimble UX5 drone at a construction site. Credit: Trimble.

We have published an updated database of FAA commercial drone exemptions here.

By Dan Gettinger

On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration released the names of 30 new companies that had approval to use drones commercially. Although the announcement was made quietly, in terms of numbers of companies, this new round of approvals dwarfs any previous round of approvals. In fact, the FAA has steadily approved more and more companies to use drones commercially. What began in September 2014 with three or four companies receiving approval at a time became 21 companies between March 20-26, and now 30 companies have received approval within the span of a few days.

Until the FAA’s full regulations are in place—some 12 to 16 months away—the agency requires individuals and companies that wish to use drones non-recreationally to apply for an exemption from the nationwide ban on any commercial drone activities. Companies can apply for what is known as 333 exemption, which refers to Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Universities, researchers, government agencies, police, and first responders can also apply for a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to use drones. Of the hundreds of companies and individuals that have applied for a 333 exemption, as of March 6 the FAA has approved 99 applications, covering 93 companies (six companies—Aerovironment, VDOS Global, Woolpert, Aerial Mob, Pictorvision, State Farm—have received two approvals).

On March 24, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it would streamline the process by which companies obtain approval to fly drones commercially. Under the new policy, companies that have already received approval under Section 333 may receive a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to fly anywhere in the country. This new “blanket” COA rule applies only to companies that are already exempted from the ban on commercial drones and to flights under 200 ft. and in unrestricted airspaces.

These exemptions offer a glimpse into what the domestic drone industry will look like until the FAA’s full regulations come into effect. Here is what you need to know about the FAA exemptions:

Companies and Applications

The approved companies and individuals plan on using drones for a variety of applications. Part of the allure of drones is that aerial imagery can be used in any number of industries ranging film and television to oil and gas. While we have classified the exemptions by category of intended use, many of the approved exempted companies plan on using drones for more than one application and do not fall neatly into a particular category. As a general rule, however, it appears as though the FAA is more likely to approve an exemption request if the intended use of drones is within a specific field or industry.

Aerial Photography and Film: 32 Exemptions

  • The largest category of approved exemptions were for companies or individuals that intended to use drones for aerial photography and film.
  • The majority of these companies (20 of the 33) planned on using drones strictly for closed-set filming or for other uses in the motion picture or television industry. Some of these companies like Helinet Aviation Services and Shotover already have established reputations for aerial filmography using manned helicopters and are now venturing into unmanned aviation.
  • The remainder listed looked to use their aerial photography for multiple industries including film and television. For example, six companies listed real estate photography as an intended use for the drone.
  • While 17 of the 33 companies were based in California, under the March 24 policy change, the geographic limit of drone use is less important. For example, Team 5, an aerial photo and film company based in California, has used drones on a range of film sets and for newsgathering across the country and internationally.

“Since we received our exemption, there has been a flurry of calls asking for [the drones]. We’ve done multiple shoots now for a few different productions,” Mike Tamburro, a partner at Team 5, told the Center for the Study of the Drone. “The blanket COA has helped exponentially; it allows us to work more like a helicopter would on a production.”

Read On: Exemption Letters and Application Materials

Utility, Energy, and Transportation Infrastructure: 29 Exemptions

  • In September 2013, the FAA issued the first exemption to fly drones commercially to ConocoPhillips, an energy company that was planning on using the Insitu ScanEagle drone to conduct surveys of potential drilling fields in the Arctic. The second exemption was for British Petroleum in June 2014, another energy company that was conducting drilling operations in the Arctic. (These two cases came before the FAA started approving 333 exemptions in late September 2014.)
  • A large portion of the approved requests since September 2014 are for companies in the utility, energy, and transportation sectors. These companies plan on using drones to conduct safety inspections of flare stacks, power plants, power lines, cell towers, pipelines, bridges, railroads, and general infrastructure.
  • Some of these companies like BNSF Railway Co., Chevron, and Southern Gas and Electric Co. are household names. The Dow Chemical Company, for example, plans on using drones to inspect “plant infrastructure and equipment, including flare stacks, elevated pipelines and power lines, tanks, and roofs.” Read On: Dow Chemical Company Petition for Exemption.
  • The majority of the petitioners, however, are lesser-known UAV startups that plan on contracting to utility or energy companies. VDOS Global, for example, plans on inspecting flare stacks for Shell Oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Texas-based Oceaneering International, Inc. specializes in supplying remotely operated undersea vehicles for deep-water exploration for oil companies. With this FAA exemption, the company wants to expand its drone operations by providing aerial safety inspections of oil rigs.
  • The applications for exemptions range in specificity. Some are highly specific, like the exemption granted to Washington-based Notus Access Group, which plans on using drones to inspect wind turbines. Others, like Industrial Aerobotics, offer a variety of services to industry ranging from inspecting transmission lines to providing security.

Read On: Exemption Letters and Application Materials

Agriculture: 15 Exemptions

  • A 2013 report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicted that precision agriculture and public safety would comprise of 90% of the domestic drone industry. In a March 24 hearing at the Senate Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Aviation, Jeff VanderWerff, a representative of the American Farm Bureau, explained that data from drones made a huge difference in the day-to-day running of a farm. “With the imagery from unmanned aircraft, I can spot-treat sections of my fields as opposed to watering and spraying the entire field,” VanderWerff said.
  • The intended uses for drones in this category are much less diverse than in photo and film or in utility and energy. Interesting, these companies hail from many regions across the country.

Read On: Exemption Letters and Application Materials

Surveying, Mapping, and Construction: 7 Exemptions

  • Darling Geomatics and Roger W. Meyer plan on using drones for mapping and surveying. Arizona-based Darling Geomatics specializes in 3D mapping and scanning and will use the SenseFly eBee drone to provide these services to government agencies and to the agriculture, utilities, and mining industries. Roger Meyer is based in Montana; he also intends to provide aerial surveying and mapping services to a variety of customers.
  • Five companies are interested in using drones specifically in the construction industry. California-based Build Imagery, LLC uses drones to create promotional or training videos for construction companies. Bechtel Equipment Operations and Danis Building Construction Company, two construction companies, plan on using drones to monitor construction sites. Mike Johnson, who is based in Carlisle, KY, will use a drone to conduct roof inspections.

“The use of an UAS would eliminate any risk of an adjuster falling off a roof during a roof inspection and subsequently eliminate injury and/or death,” Mike Johnson writes in his application for an exemption.

Read On: Exemption Letters and Application Materials

Manufacturers: 3 Exemptions

  • While there are multiple companies that have built their own drones, three companies—Aeryon Labs, Inc, SenseFly LTD., AeroVironment, Inc.—are well established drone manufacturers. In addition to providing drones for several exempted companies, Aeryon Labs, for example, sold a drone to the Michigan State Police, the first law enforcement agency to receive statewide permission from the FAA to test drones. An Aerovironment Puma drone was used by British Petroleum in the second-ever FAA exemption for commercial drone use in Alaska.
  • None of these manufacturers are specific in terms of how each intends to use the drones. In Aerovironment’s application for an exemption, Jonathan B. Hill, the counsel for Aerovironment, writes the the Puma UAV is “ideally suited to conduct commercial operations such as agriculture, aerial surveying, and patrolling in remote areas” without specifying which industries or fields it plans on marketing its services to.
  • Of the three companies, only Aerovironment has its headquarters in the United States. Aeryon Labs is based in Ontario, Canada, and SenseFly in Switzerland.

Read On: Exemption Letters and Application Materials

Insurance: 3 Exemptions

  • Three insurance companies—USAA, AIG, and State Farm—have received exemptions to test drones. “Our members see USAA using technology to help them and their families,” Kathleen Swain, property and casualty staff underwriter with USAA, said in a statement. “And I think they’ll see the drone technology as another extension of that. It will make the claims process smoother and more efficient for them.” An insurer might use a drone to inspect damaged property, fly over the scene of accident, or conduct of a survey of the damage after a disaster like a tornado.

Read On: Exemption Letters and Application Materials

Other: 5 Exemptions

  • Georgia-based LowCountryRC, Corp. mainly wants to use drones to take aerial photos and inspect high towers and structures. It may, however, also explore using drones for aiding law enforcement and first responders. Read On: Exemption Letter for LowCountryRC, corporation
  • SkyPhilly, Inc. listed eight possible uses for drones including aerial surveying, remote sensing, telecommunications, agriculture, aerial filmmaking and photography, energy systems inspections and asset management, construction site inspections and monitoring, wildlife and forestry monitoring, educational and research operations, and pipeline inspection and patrolling. Read On: Exemption Letter for SkyPhilly, Inc.
  • Indiana-based Steven Zeets also plans on using drones to conduct aerial studies in a variety of industries including agriculture, wildlife preservation, utility, and for government entities. Read On: Exemption Letter for Steven Zeets
  • Like Mr. Zeets and SkyPhilly, the FAA has permitted Jeffrey J. Walsh to use drones in a variety of industries. Walsh, a “certified photogrammetrist” based in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, writes in his application that if drones are used in ways that are similar to manned aircraft, drones “will not generate any new privacy issues.” Read On: Exemption Letter for Jeffrey J. Walsh.
  • The City of Roswell Coalition in Roswell, New Mexico intends to research ways of creating a drone training curriculum. The Roswell Coalition will work with the Aeryon Labs, a manufacturer of drones mainly for use with the military, law enforcement, and utility companies like the Southern Electric Co. According to one of the application materials, the training program will “provide the industry with a much improved training model and safer, better prepared operators.” Read On: Exemption Letter for The City of Roswell Coalition

The Drones

The companies that have been permitted to use drones may only use the model of aircraft specified in the application for an exemption to the FAA. Of the 93 exempted companies, there are 48 different drone manufacturers and 62 models and platforms. Of these, Hong Kong-based DJI is far and away the most popular manufacturer of drones, providing at least one model to 35 of the exempted companies. Following DJI, nine exempted companies—mainly in the fields of precision agriculture and mapping—plan on using a drone from Sensefly, the Swiss manufacturer of the eBee. Some manufacturers have ended up supplying drones to a particular industry; the customers of Aeryon Labs are almost exclusively in the utility and energy sector, while insurance companies USAA and AIG favored Precision Hawk.

A few of these companies built their own drones, though the majority purchased a model from one of the many startup drone makers. While these exempted companies and their drones are not representative of the market as a whole, the number of manufacturers and variety of platforms does provide a window on the increasingly crowded field of drone manufacturers.

By the Numbers:

  • 48 different drone manufacturers and 62 models and platforms.
  • 25 of the exempted companies plan on using more than one model of drone.
  • 35 exempted companies will use a drone from DJI.
  • 8 exempted companies plan on using a drone from SenseFly.

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The Comment Section

When a petitioner submits a request for an exemption to the FAA, it is posted on where interested organizations and individuals can post comments supporting or opposing the petition. In each exemption letter, the FAA addresses the comments that organizations have submitted in response to the petition for an exemption from the ban on commercial drones. Most of the comment sections are sparse, though occasionally an individual not associated with an organization will submit a comment. However, in most of the petitions—particularly in the early months of the exemption process last fall—the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) has submitted a comment in opposition to the petition for exemption. These comment letters are written and submitted by Mark Reed, the Staff Engineer in the Engineering & Air Safety Department at the ALPA.

These letters usually contain between 10 and 14 objections to the petitioner’s request, the majority of which are observations regarding the general safety of unmanned aircraft and not specific objections to the petitioner’s request. Common objections include the possibility of command and control link failures with drones, the absence of a requirement that the pilot hold a commercial pilot’s license, and the fact that the lithium polymer batteries on drones are flammable. Reed ends each letter by noting that the petitioner does not cite a specific application or mission for the drone in a particular location (a drone flight plan of sorts), potentially increasing the FAA’s responsibility to enforce safe practices. Read On: ALPA Letter in Response to the Petition by SenseFly.

In a statement to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on March 24, Capt. Tim Canoll, the president of the ALPA, urged that “[I]t is vitally important that the pressure to capitalize on the technology not lead to an incomplete safety analysis of the aircraft and operations.” Another organization that commonly submits objections is the National Agricultural Aviation Association, which recently released a statement on the need to “Protect Ag Pilots from the Threat of UAVs.” In response to the ALPA and NAAA, the Small UAV Coalition, an organization that is pushing for looser restrictions on commercial drones, sometimes submits a comment in support of a petition. In each exemption letter to companies, the FAA acknowledges the supporting and opposing arguments and sometimes responds to individual objections, citing precedents established by earlier exemptions.

On December 21, 2014, not long after the FAA had approved exemptions for six aerial photo and film companies, the Washington Post reported that the drone exemptions were the subject of a major debate within the FAA. The aviation administration, wrote Craig Whitlock at the Post, was facing enormous pressure from politicians to approve petitions. When that article went live, there were 167 pending petitions for exemptions. Today there are over 600 petitions. As the number of petitions grow, many questions remain as to how the FAA will regulate the drone industry in the months before the full regulations come into force. How many more companies will the FAA allow to fly drones commercially? Does the FAA have quotas for particular industries and applications? The answers to these questions will have an immediate impact on the drone industry that will last beyond the start date of the FAA’s full regulations.

Editor’s note: On Thursday April 9, 2015, the day after the publication of this post, the FAA announced 29 new commercial drone exemptions, bringing the total number of approved petitions to 128. This post only reflects the 99 exemptions to 93 companies that had been issued on or prior to Monday April 6. On April 9, the FAA also announced that it was loosening some requirements for commercial drone exemptions: operators are no longer required to hold a private pilot’s license—only a sport pilot’s license—and a driver’s license will suffice instead of a 3rd class medical.

Need to Know provides context and resources to help you get a better understanding of recent developments in the world of drones. For updates, news, and commentary, follow us on Twitter.

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