Section 333 Exemption

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. 

Drone On: How do I get an FAA Section 333 Exemption?

Answer:  it's not exactly a simple process but for those of you hoping to use your drone or UAV for a commercial purpose, hope is not lost!  What you need is a Section 333 Exemption and lucky for you  this post is going to help you learn how to get it.  

First of all, its important to note that you need to submit your Petition for Exemption no less than 120 days BEFORE you actually need to use your drone or UAV.  The FAA instructions actually say this so rest assured that this process takes at least 120 days to complete.  In other words, plan ahead.   It will also probably take a month or more to prepare the Petition for Exemption so I would start this process at least 150 days out, if not more.   And last but not least, you do not "need" an attorney to help you do this but (gasp!) we may actually be a great resource.  Contrary to popular belief, lawyers can be helpful (sometimes). 

Lets talk about Section 333 Exemption Petitions:

You need to include a lot of info in your petition- as in more than you may initially think. Besides the basics (name, address, contact info, etc) you also need to do a lot of soul searching about how your requested exemption will benefit the public.  For example, are you using a drone to correct an agricultural problem?  Probably a solid benefit to the public.  Are you using a drone to terrorize people on Halloween?  Not so much.  

In addition to the "public benefit" standard, you also need to know which sections from Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations you are seeking relief from.  Keep in mind that currently there are no FAA rules on small UAVs - only proposed rules.  This means the current FAA regs are used for all aircraft, including the big ones (hence why you need an exemption).  This is where an attorney may come in handy.  

Once you have figured out the public benefit and which FAA regs you need exempted from, you also need to provide reasons why the exemption will not adversely affect the safety of yourself and others or you need to  illustrate how the exemption will provide a level of safety equal to the current regulation.   After that, you need to formulate a general summary of the exemption sought and any additional information, news, or arguments to support your petition.  One great addition- precedent (another reason why an attorney may help out).  

All that above is the baseline for a Petition for Exemption.  Other additions that may be helpful include: a description of the UAV including performance and safety limitations and standards; procedures to be used for preflight inspections and maintenance; qualifications of the pilot (note: an FAA Airman Certificate is likely required); proposed maximum speeds and altitudes, proximity to airports (hint: don't be close); compliance with visual-line-of-sight; and characteristics of the intended geographic area of operation.  

Finally, the key to the petition and the single most important concern of the FAA is SAFETY.  If you can think of nothing else to talk about in your petition, talk about safety.  See an example of an approved Petition for Exemption here

Although additional exemptions and certificates may also be required, the Section 333 Exemption is the gateway to fly your drone for a commercial purpose.  If this is something you think you may want or need, let us know so we can help!

For additional and highly valuable information, go here

For directions on how to file your petition, go here.