Commercial Drone Use: Why a Section 333 Exemption may be worth $1.9M or more

I understand that everyone is shuffling to get a piece of the "drone pie."  As mentioned in previous blog posts, drones (or UAVs) are pretty awesome tools a variety of industries can use to get stuff done in a safer, more efficient, and more accurate way.  Drones are no longer a thing of the future- they are here in the Now and you can even buy them on Amazon. However, the FAA still has not issued final rules for small commercial drones, making commercial drone use essentially illegal under Federal (and State) law. " This is my sad face ---> :-( 

Many of you are probably thinking "Ha! I will do it anyway!"  For others, you are already using drones for a variety of commercial purposes, hoping to fly under the FAA's radar (literally) by keeping your cool drone tricks off Youtube and between you and your employees.  The problem with this is that commercial drone use is still in fact illegal and the FAA knows people are pushing the commercial lines.  In fact, contrary to what you may think about most federal agencies, the FAA is well-staffed, well-versed in their own rules, and very unhappy with the rule breakers.  Yes, they investigate commercial drone use and yes, they punish those who think they are above the law.  Just ask SkyPan and their $1.9M check made payable to the FAA. 

SkyPan used drones from 2012 to 2014 to take some pretty amazing photos of Chicago and NYC. Unfortunately for SkyPan, they were taking these photos for a commercial purpose and often treading in commercial airline space (hint: the former is bad, the latter is really really bad).  The FAA got wind of SkyPan and fined them $1.9M.  Based on my calculations, this is a quite a bit of money. 

Yes, yes, for those of you listening to NPR yesterday, you know the $1.9M fine is "proposed" and SkyPan has 30 days to respond to the violation, but this proves that the threat of getting caught is very real and the money at stake may be very high.  To avoid SkyPan's mistake*, anyone seeking to use a drone for a commercial purpose should seek a Section 333 Exemption through the FAA.  These exemptions are not impossible and will prevent you from getting in major trouble.  We even blogged about the process a few weeks back.  One caveat:  make sure you know the stipulations of your exemption certificate and DON'T violate them (see the [*] below).  

The point is: be careful.  This is one of many cautionary tales of commercial drone use so know the risk, weigh the risk, and keep our contact info close by.  

[*] NOTE: SkyPan does in fact hold a Section 333 Exemption but it wasn't granted until April 2015.  The FAA is punishing them based on commercial drone use in 2012-2014,  prior to their Exemption Certificate.