The current regulatory climate in the United States strictly limits legal commercial drone operation. There are at present only 32 companies that operate under FAA exemption, with some 568 petitions pending. However, that is by no means an exhaustive count of the companies that are currently operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the United States, nor is it any indication of overall interest.

The companies that have been chosen by the FAA for exemption, have, so far, been established UAV operators, in specific types of industries for which the FAA has a mandate, and which have conformed to specific operating criterion. Amazon, for example, though having submitted one of the earliest exemption requests, has not yet been approved. The industries represented so far include: aerial videography and photography, survey and mapping, infrastructure inspection, and precision agriculture.

Regulatory Background

Current FAA regulations provide no pathway for aircraft of any type to fly within the National Airspace System (“NAS”) for commercial purposes unless the aircraft has met stringent airworthiness certification requirements.

However, based on the  so called “Section 333 exemption” referenced in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA),  the FAA has started to grant petitions to allow provisional commercial operations. This Act requires the FAA  to determine what types of sUAS may fly commercially in the NAS, and exempt those that are safe, in advance of formal rulemaking. The FAA is also requiring operators to file a separate Certificate of Authorization (COA) in addition to the petition.

On February 15th, 2015, the FAA released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would provide clear rules for operating commercially within the NAS (read more on Skyward’s take on the NPRM). However, the rule has yet to be  completed and may take eighteen months or longer to become finalized and put into effect. Thus, in advance of completion of formal rulemaking, the petition process is only effective method to obtain approval for commercial operations within the United States for the vast majority UAV operators.

To date, more than 480 of these “333 exemption petitions”, have been filed with the FAA and a total of 43 commercial exemptions have been granted for 38 companies, with several companies that had been granted airworthiness exemptions needing further amendments to allow other aircraft or for operational requirements.  These requests have come from diverse sectors including precision agriculture, filmmaking, oil and gas flare stack inspection, insurance inspections, and powerline, pipeline, or other infrastructure inspection.

A list of the current grantees of the Section 333 Exemptions.
A table of current Section 333 exemptions granted by the FAA. (PDF)

Company Analysis

The FAA stated in early 2014 that they would begin fast-tracking commercial UAV use through the so-called “Section 333” exemption process. Specifically, they prioritized the fields of filmmaking, powerline and flare stack inspection, and precision agriculture. The FAA chose those areas for statutory reasons to fulfill their mandate of aviation safety.

These domains and use-cases, as opposed to package delivery, easily qualify under the FMRA 2012 statutory requirement that use of UAV in the national airspace be safe based on their size, weight, speed, operational capability, proximity to airports and populated areas, and operation within visual line of sight. In addition, the FAA requires exemption petitioners to justify their petition in terms of the public good.

Thus, the companies that have been granted exemptions have shown that their operation of a UAV is safer (thus benefiting the public good) than an equivalent operation conducted through manned aviation. Aerial filmmaking with a 10 lb UAV over the actors is much safer than hovering a thousand pound helicopter full of aviation fuel over a set. Hazardous infrastructure inspection with UAVs, for example, provides a clear financial and safety gain over using a human on a scaffold or a rope.

Companies more interested in operating UAVs for package delivery in urban environments have so far not been able to make a similar safety case in the United States, though other countries, notably the United Kingdom, have published regulatory guidelines for operating UAVs within London and other congested areas.

Rural areas, on the other hand, are inherently low-risk locations for operations, both because by definition there are fewer people and valuable properties on the ground, but also because rural areas are typically well away from airports or airways and are thus unlikely to interfere with manned aviation. Thus, precision agriculture operations are also good candidates for exemptions. In fact, while the majority of the exemptions so far have been for aerial filming in closed sets, there have been multiple exemptions granted for precision agriculture companies.

In brief, companies able to demonstrate a clear enhancement of safety, reduction in risk, public benefit, and operations conducted well away from urban environments, are more likely to be rapidly approved by the FAA. Urban operations, however, are not out of the question; they will simply require more risk mitigations and deeper dialogue with the FAA on operational constraints and requirements.

Check back next week when I’ll compare and contrast the FAA requirements for the 333 petition with the NPRM.

Image used by permission from Aerial Technology International.