It’s tax day so it is easy to understand regulations from government agencies never tend to be very clear or set in stone. Unfortunately, the FAA guidelines on drone usage in US airspace suffer from the same problem.
What is the 333?
According to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA will eventually have to find a way to incorporate drones into the national airspace. But currently, the FAA only has draft rules about the usage of small drones (smalll Unmanned Aerial Systems—sUAS) and therefore in section 333 of the above act created a stopgap to allow sUAS operations until the official regulations are finalized. This is how the 333 exemption was born and this is what allows civil businesses and individuals the right to use drones from commercial purposes before final rules are in place.
Getting and using the 333
True to government form you have to fill out stacks of paper work and go through review period, which in total can take months (although it is getting faster). But after you have an exemption it doesn’t mean you can use your drones willy-nilly, instead you need yet another document, the Certificate of Authorization (COA). Luckily the FAA realized the madness of this and on March 23rd decided to, “automatically grant a “blanket” COA for flights at or below 200 feet to any UAS operator with a Section 333 exemption, provided the aircraft weighs less than 55 pounds, operations are conducted during daytime Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions and within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the pilots, and stay certain distances away from airports or heliports.” If you want to fly outside this blanket zone then you have to apply for a separate COA for the air space of operation.
Remember, that these are only stopgap measures and eventually they were be replaced, so applying for a 333 exemption and a possible additional COA must be carefully evaluated.
Who has a 333?
As of the April 9, 2015 the FAA has issued 137 exemptions to businesses and individuals (some of those 137 are amended filings). The full list is publicly available from the FAA and is updated once new exemptions are granted, so check back often to see the latest developments. On the list, the FAA defines operation/mission category for the business or individual that have received the exemption. This is an interesting way to see how the drone industry is taking off.
From our own quick analysis nearly half of 333 exemption are granted for some form of aerial photography or filming (whether it be real estate photos, filming for movies, etc). The next biggest category is using drones for inspecting a variety of things like bridges, cell towers and wind turbines. Inspections account for nearly twenty percent exemptions so far. Not far behind is exemptions for precision agricultural which take up just over fifteen percent. The top five are rounded out by oil and gas companies and aerial surveying and mapping which both account of around thirteen percent of 333 exemptions.