FAA exemptions for commercial drone flight top 1,000

Commercial Drones

Photo by AP Former Navy helicopter pilot and San Diego Gas & Electric unmanned aircraft operator Teena Deering holds a drone as it is prepared for takeoff near Boulevard, California.
By Donna Mahoney

The Federal Aviation Administration has granted more than 1,000 exemption approvals for drones in its effort to safely expand their operations.

The 1,008 Section 333 exemptions include grants for “new and novel approaches to inspecting power distribution towers and wiring, railroad infrastructure and bridges,” the FAA said Aug. 4 in a statement.

A report published July 30 by the Arlington, Virginia-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International highlights some of the innovative ways unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones, are being put to work, including inspecting industrial flare stacks that stand several hundred feet tall and emit 2,000-degree-Fahrenheit heat.

Building contractors also can use drones to inspect work being done on roofs instead of asking workers to climb up and do it, while civil engineering contractors can use drones to inspect bridges, towers, and wind turbines without putting people at risk to do so, the report says.

“With the FAA offering 333 exemptions to companies, they are able to use unmanned aircraft with optical (traditional), thermal/infrared, even gas-detection (leak) sensors,” a spokesman for Morton, Illinois-based unmanned aerial vehicle manufacturer Homeland Surveillance & Electronics L.L.C. said Aug. 6 in an email. “And since UAVs are so much smaller in size, they can safely operate closer to the lines/structures without risking the lives of pilots or infrastructure, all with returning a higher quality data output.”

“Bridge inspections are a hot topic right now because of the amount of failures and concerns we’ve had over the last 20 years,” the spokesman continued. “UAVs can quickly and effectively be used to fly around supports and foundations to show signs of premature wear/damage. UAVs can inspect the underside of decks and roadways — imagine humans trying to get data that close and quickly while being suspended over a rushing river or massive ravine.”

Railroads can also use UAVs to measure changes in track integrity and capture time-lapse data to compare changes over time. Before UAVs, this was done manually by walking or rolling a crew down the tracks to collect the data, the spokesman said.

Utility inspections also are safer and faster with drones. According to a petition granted to Atlanta-based Southern Company Services Inc. by the FAA, drones “would vastly reduce risks to crews responsible for power line inspections and significantly hasten power restoration in the event of storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other weather events.”


5 States Vying to Become the Drone Capital of the Country


Federal drone regulations are still up in the air, but hundreds of lucky organizations can start flying the devices now because they nabbed exemptions from the Federal Aviation Administration.

So who’s getting all of these exemptions?

Startups and small businesses, mostly. They’ve scooped up 80 percent of the first 500 exemptions the FAA granted unmanned aircraft system–i.e. drone–operators since it began offering exemptions last year, according to a report by the non-profit Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Roughly one-third of these operators are involved in real estate, followed by aerial surveying, aerial photography, agriculture, and construction.

“The flood of commercial exemption requests to the FAA shows that a mature UAS commercial market is waiting to be unleashed,” reads the executive summary of the report, urging the FAA to finalize regulations.

Until then, the five states below, which top the list for the highest number of exemptions offered, are already vying to become the drone capital of the country:


California, home of Berkeley-based drone manufacturer 3D Robotics and a number of other companies competing with DJI of China, has 70 of the first 500 operator exemptions extended by the FAA.

You might think that with housing prices climbing as they are in Silicon Valley, real estate would be fueling the boom. That industry is up there, but film and television beats it out for drone exemptions. Film and television drone operators scored 23 of those exemptions, and real estate 15. Florida and New York trail behind with seven and five film and television exemptions, respectively, according to the report.


Texas businesses are finding applications ranging from safety inspections to energy industry mapping and monitoring, reports the Houston Chronicle. The state is home to 46 of the first 500 FAA-exempted operators.

Cloud9Drones co-founder Jacob Rachniowski told the Chronicle the drone industry is “busting loose.” Aerial photography leads the way in the state with 16 of the exemptions, followed by real estate with 15.


Florida has 40 of the first operators with FAA exemptions, half of them in the real estate industry, followed by 10 in aerial photography. In the face of FAA drone regulation limbo, the state has stepped in with a law prohibiting drone surveillance. The law went into effect in July and exempts business uses of drones for non-surveillance purposes, according to the Insurance Journal. Careful how you use your devices, photographers.


Yet again, real estate and aerial photography can be seen leading the way in FAA exemptions for drone operators. In Illinois, where operators took 18 of the first exemptions, each industry claims seven of those approvals. Illinois State Police are among those approved for use of drones, or unmanned aircraft, as the state police prefer to say

“The ability to obtain accurate measurements and clear images from aerial photographs will significantly reduce the amount of time highways are closed during the initial investigation of major traffic crashes,” a state police statement gave as reasons for seeking to use what-shall-not-be-called-drones.


Phoenix Business Journal noted that the Grand Canyon state does pretty well for its relatively small population. With 17 of the first FAA-approved operators, Arizona beats out the more-peopled states of New York, New Jersey, Washington, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Ohio, the Journal notes. Maybe it’s the beautiful desert landscape inspiring early adoption of the flying devices often used for aerial photography? More likely, it’s forward-looking real estate agents. Of the exempted operators covered in the report, seven use drones for real estate. Agriculture is the next biggest arena in the state, with six of the first exempted operators.


St. Augustine resident’s drone photography business takes off

When Tom Kane thought about starting his own business, he used his knowledge and experience in aviation to launch an aerial drone photography service.

A licensed private pilot for the past 20 years, Kane moved to St. Augustine from Pittsburgh in January. He formed his own company, SKY 1 Imaging, in May and this week received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate drones for commercial purposes such as real estate photography and business marketing.

Kane has made an initial investment in two DJI Phantom 3 professional-grade aerial drones, which produce high-resolution still and video images.

“Flying drones is much different from taking pictures from an airplane or helicopter. Most importantly, drone photography has become affordable for almost everyone. Additionally, a drone is able to fly in places that an airplane or helicopter could never reach,” Kane said.

While flying drones might be more affordable and have easier access than traditional aircraft, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) pilots, or drone pilots, still must follow very specific laws. Kane also pointed out that it is not widely known that individuals or businesses who hire drone photographers are the ones who are held liable if something goes wrong with a flight and if the drone service is not FAA-approved.

Kane has already begun to line up jobs in St. Johns County and the Jacksonville area. Uses for drone photography run the gamut, from real estate firms that need aerial shots of properties to construction site managers checking on the progress of projects as well as restaurants, hotels and other businesses that want fly-over images for websites and other marketing purposes.

“It’s really a very blank canvas,” Kane said. “I’m talking to a lot of people who didn’t even know what they could do with it [drone photography] and are saying, ‘You know, let me think it over, I think I might want to do that.