Commercial UAS Exemptions: Interactive Report

In September 2014, the FAA began awarding grants of exemption to companies looking to use unmanned aircraft systems to support their business. This process, allowed by Section 333 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, was the only way for businesses to circumvent the airworthiness requirement and other requirements that were established for manned aircraft. As of August 29, 2016, companies are now able to operate sUAS via a new rule - Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. However, exemptions still remain pertinent because authorized exemption holders will continue to operate their UAS under the remaining duration of their exemption (most exemptions expire after two years).

The following webpage provides interactive graphics detailing the data provided through the exemption process. This is the best way to explore the current state of the commercial UAS industry. The data are current through August 29, 2016, detailing the first 5500+ exemptions.

Platform data are courtesy AUVSI's Unmanned Systems and Robotics Database, the most comprehensive and searchable robotics database in the industry.

Industry Spotlights

Click on an industry below to learn more about how UAS are transforming the way we do business.


John Nowatzki, agricultural machine systems specialist, North Dakota State University

Courtesy: Increasing Human Potential’s Unmanned Unplugged Series

Crop producers are increasingly providing digital data to manage crop production on a more precise field scale. UAS crop and livestock monitoring, and imagery collected with UAS, will provide an additional timely dataset to increase precision management practices for farmers and ranchers and simultaneously provide more effective safeguards for the natural environment.

UAS will provide timely, high-resolution imagery and a real-time eye in the sky for agricultural producers to use to more precisely apply crop inputs, to validate past management decisions and to adjust in-season practices.

UAS are safer, less expensive and timelier than manned aircraft remote sensing. UAS operated in crop fields and livestock rangeland in rural fields under existing safety guidelines provide essentially no safety threat to people on the ground or manned aircraft. Additionally, manned aircraft operated in close proximity to crop and livestock operations are potentially more dangerous to the aircraft operator.

Yamaha RMAX for Crop Spraying in Napa Valley

Courtesy: Unmanned Systems magazine

Napa Valley doesn’t use manned aircraft for spraying, instead relying on ground tractors. Spraying crops with those can take much longer — tractors can travel only about 3 mph, while the RMAX can move along at 12 to 15 mph.

Even if manned aircraft were used in Napa, the RMAX would have some advantages. It can fly very low over the grapes, thereby minimizing fertilizer waste and runoff, and it’s more nimble and able to steer away from the houses and other structures that share the space with the vineyards.


The Associated General Contractors of America, a nationwide trade association of construction companies and related firms, has engaged its more than 26,000 members in a discussion of UAS and their potential benefits to the construction industry.

Project Planning and Design – UAS have the potential to reduce the cost and improve the quality of the currently available maps of specific project sites. Improvements in the design and planning processes will reduce the number and degree of expensive changes that a project team has to make in the field and will help a project stay on schedule and within budget.

Safety – Building contractors would like to use UAS to inspect the work being done on roofs or curtain walls, or other vertical surfaces, rather than ask their employees to get onto a lift, to climb a scaffold or to descend from a higher elevation in a bosun’s chair. Similarly, civil contractors would like to use UAS to inspect bridges, towers, wind turbines and similar structures without putting their workers at risk. UAS can also help contractors determine the safest way for work to flow throughout a project site and to identify potentially dangerous areas that they may need to barricade.

Efficiency – As noted, UAS have the potential to help contractors monitor their jobsites, how equipment and materials are laid out, and how the work actually flows. This would also help them plan and supervise their site logistics.

Quality – UAS have the potential to reduce the cost of inspecting the quality of work done at higher elevations, including the many joints in a building’s envelope and the caulking, flashing or other work needed to prevent water from penetrating. UAS would also make it much easier for contractors to inspect welds and other structural connections at whatever elevation they may be. Contractors report that small UAS often provide a vantage point that manned aircraft simply cannot match.

Environmental Compliance – UAS would also make it much easier for contractors to document their compliance with a host of environmental and other requirements. Among these requirements are storm water controls that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its counterparts at the state level require contractors to inspect every seven to 14 days (depending on the state) and after rain.

Other Possibilities – In the future, contractors might also find that they can use UAS to carry tools, equipment or construction materials from one location to another. If appropriate for such use, UAS would be far more versatile than the cranes being used today.

Film and TV

Motion Picture

Courtesy: Mission Critical magazine

A pulse-quickening sequence in a 2012 James Bond movie, “Skyfall,” which was shot in Istanbul, Turkey, is one often-cited example of effective aerial cinematography using a small UAS. Daniel Craig as 007 is shown from above and many other angles as he rides a motorcycle in a wild chase on the roofs of buildings, battles with a bad guy atop a speeding train, plunges off a cliff and is swept over a roaring waterfall.

“While we have already seen movies filmed with SUAS from overseas productions — take for example the roof sequence of ‘Skyfall’ — the sky is literally the limit in imagining what new angles and views filmmakers will thrill us with next,” says Lauren Reamy, director of government affairs for the Motion Picture Association of America. “Every day, moviemakers are increasingly leveraging the latest technologies to advance their craft. Using SUAS is an example of that, one in which audiences will continue to see scenes and shots we could only have imagined a few years ago.”

“Small unmanned aircraft systems are a safer, more efficient and a more flexible alternative in many cases,” says Reamy. “For example, SUAS run on electricity, while manned helicopters require thousands of gallons of gasoline.

Independent filmmakers and other producers whose budgets don’t allow for manned helicopters could save money and broaden their creative possibilities by using drones, says Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers. “The independents will embrace the cheapness of it, and the studios will embrace the trendiness of it.”

“I find, as a cinematographer, where the shots are most interesting and most dynamic is down low,” says David Wagreich, CEO and pilot for Astraeus Aerial Cinema Systems. “Typically, with full-scale helicopters, you’re always asking to go lower. To be high and wide and looking down on something isn’t as exciting as being down in the action. Typically, our best shots are at 50, 30 feet or below.”

Previously, he says, for movies like “Spiderman,” crews had to spend days — and tens of thousands of dollars — rigging cable cameras and programing their movements.

“There are a lot of production economies,” Wagreich notes. “In comparison with full-scale helicopters, which can cost upwards of $30,000 a day to operate ... you can fly a UAS for [about] half the price.”

The demand for unmanned aerial cinematography has been “very strong,” says Treggon Owens, cofounder of Aerial Mob, but the time needed to gain clearance makes it a challenge to meet the demand. “The demand for the use of it is definitely outstripping our ability to get through the regulatory hurdles, but [FAA officials] are working on that very hard.”

“What I really like about the drone is that it frees up your creativity,” he says. “You are providing the filmmaker a whole new way to tell a story.”

Advantages of UAS over manned helicopters for moviemaking include greater safety. Most fatalities of film crew members have involved manned helicopter accidents.

“The technology, from our perspective, is game changing,” Astraeus Aerial’s Wagreich says. “You can create shots that you could never achieve before.”

With drones, he says, “you can show up and fly it in real time,” saving time and money and allowing greater creativity. “I think what’s going to happen now is directors of photography are going to start conceiving shots around UAS.”


A number of insurance companies and UAS operators have recognized the potential value of UAS to property/casualty insurance and have obtained Section 333 exemptions from the Federal Aviation Administration to explore and develop such insurance operations. The primary business cases for property/casualty insurance use of UAS are for routine property assessment and disaster management.

In the normal course of its business, a property/casualty insurance company will assess the condition of a potential policyholder’s property to gauge the appropriate risk and coverage for the property. In many cases, the property may include spaces where access is restricted or dangerous to examine, such as a pitched roof. Rather than subject its personnel to undue risk, an insurance company can use a UAS to examine areas that are limited in access. This can provide data more quickly and with fewer hazards to company employees.

Similarly, when damage or loss occurs at policyholder locations, properly accessing the actual damage can subject insurance company personnel to physical danger and bodily risk. In many cases, a UAS can provide the needed access and assessment remotely, limiting the danger to insurance company personnel.

Insurance companies responding to disaster situations have a heightened need and responsibility for property assessments and claims adjudication. In situations with severe and widespread damage, the need for insurance companies to respond quickly and adequately can increase exponentially. Insurance companies are now exploring the use of UAS in claims appraisals in major disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, where the extent of the damage may exceed the number of available inspectors and be inaccessible.

But the insurance use of UAS is not just limited to responding to major disasters. They can also play a key role after regional natural events or disasters that may not cause widespread damage but still affect the property of hundreds of policyholders. In the wake of more localized events such as tornadoes or hailstorms damaging small towns, UAS can provide a more rapid response to assess damage, leading to faster payment of claims.


ArrowData is an innovative aerospace and data services company headquartered in Las Vegas. that specializes in persistent data collection, transmission, analytics and distribution services. It was the first company to receive a Section 333 exemption for newsgathering and the only company among the first 500 to focus solely on these operations.

ArrowData recently flew a CineStar 8 HL unmanned aircraft for ABC7 (KGO) in San Francisco on July 9, 2015, and both ArrowData and the TV station cannot be happier with the combined effort. The company integrated live unmanned aerial vehicle shots with numerous “hits” throughout the evening newscast.

“We provided live shots of the demolition of historic Candlestick Park that is being transformed into a housing and office space development called Candlestick Point,” says ArrowData. “This was the first time a newscast in the Bay Area had used live UAV video to supplement its newscast. We also took numerous weather shots live from the UAV. KGO developed a specific website for this effort allowing viewers to see the video from our aircraft at all times during the broadcast.

“This debut of ‘aerojournalism’ was weeks in the making. After receiving a Section 333 exemption, we worked extensively with local authorities from the FAA in the Bay Area to ensure safe operations. We keep in regular contact with the FAA so they are familiar and comfortable with our operations.

“It is clear to us that TV news organizations want to use UAVs to cover TV news. They are more economical than helicopters and in many cases can provide better video. We are hopeful that as we continue to prove safe operations to the FAA, regulations will be relaxed involving flying over people and near airports. This will make using UAVs more effective when covering breaking news.”

Oil and Gas

Flying with Flare

Courtesy: Mission Critical magazine

Flare stacks play a key role in oil and natural gas production by burning off unusable gas at drilling rigs and refineries, but inspecting the flametipped towers for damage has traditionally been dangerous and difficult. Advocates of unmanned aircraft systems say the technology could make such inspections far safer and easier.

Flare stacks can stand several hundred feet tall and emit 2,000-degreeFahrenheit heat. Having inspectors climb flare stacks or nearby structures or elevating them with a sky lift is risky, and using manned helicopters can be cost-prohibitive.

Small UAS offer a better option, according to operators and manufacturers. The unmanned vehicles keep people out of harm’s way and are relatively inexpensive and simple to operate. Their agility and compact size allow them to easily fly above and around flare stacks, potentially providing better views than other means. And flare stacks do not have to be shut down for UAS inspections.

“Drone technology improves safety, reduces liability, increases accuracy, and saves time and money for our customers while allowing them to continue work as usual during the inspection process,” says Houstonbased Total Safety U.S. Inc., one of several companies that plan to participate in the American UAS flare stack inspection market.

“The risk to an onboard pilot and crew during an incident or accident is eliminated with the use of a UA [unmanned aircraft] for the inspection operation,” the FAA wrote in its approval document for Total Safety. “In addition, utilizing UAS to conduct flare stack inspections will reduce the need for inspection personnel to perform this hazardous activity.”

“There are potentially 3,500 potential inspection sites just in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Brian Whiteside, founder and president of VDOS Global, the first company approved for flare stack inspections. “There are something like 60,000 cell phone towers throughout the U.S., one-third of which have to be inspected every year. All the refineries throughout the U.S.” are inspection candidates, as are the pipelines and windmills.

Real Estate

Technological advances have made it cost effective to take pictures and videos from drones, aka Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Real estate professionals are interested in using this new technology to take videos and pictures to create dynamic marketing pieces for property listings, among other purposes.

Real estate professionals working with residential, commercial and land parcels can all benefit from the images and information obtained from using UAV technology. This imagery is an incredible tool for potential homeowners moving to a different city, buying a second home or trying to streamline the research process necessary to buy a new home. Many commercial properties or large parcels of land do not lend themselves well to traditional photography. Capturing the entirety of the plot will give a better representation of the property at hand.

Being able to easily view the information obtained through the use of UAV technology will help better inform the consumer. Just as digital photography made it easier to create high-quality, affordable images, real estate practitioners look forward to using UAV technology to take their listings into the next level in technical creativity and quality. Many real estate professionals want to hire a professional who offers UAV photography services, while some others are getting the FAA waivers and using the machines themselves.

Many industries that support real estate can also use UAV technology to enhance their businesses. Property appraisals, facility management, roof inspection, insurance evaluation and thermal imaging evaluations are all tasks that can be done expeditiously using UAV technology. Insurance companies can use UAV technology to quickly evaluate property damage in an area after a storm or other destructive event. That would expedite the information-gathering process for property owners and businesses to get back up and running.


Unmanned aircraft systems provide SDG&E another way to manage our electric and gas operations. The versatile technology helps us complete aerial inspections in remote areas that are otherwise difficult to access and locate the cause of power outages faster.

Initial operations used a UAS measuring 16 inches in diameter and weighing less than a pound. These small devices use a camera to inspect utility equipment and relay live images back to the controller. A UAS can access sections of our system that are difficult for our crews to reach and alert them if repairs are needed. They can also improve day-to-day operations and quicken our response time during emergency situations.

  • Inspections – Improved ability for SDG&E to complete aerial inspections of power lines in remote areas. Currently, linemen have to climb transmission towers to complete an inspection in these remote areas. A UAS allows us to see the tops of poles and cross arms where damage is hard to see from the ground.
  • Restoration – Allows us to respond to power outages in remote areas quicker. This can help shorten power outages since crews can complete inspections and troubleshoot affected areas quickly.
  • Situational awareness – Improves clarity for ground crews and system operators, especially during emergency situations and extreme weather conditions.
  • Environmental protection – Achieves noise reductions and helps us avoid the use of helicopters and other heavy machinery on roads.

Research Notes

Although the data herein currently covers the first 5,521 exemptions, it only looks at the 5,267 unique companies who received these exemptions. Many companies received multiple exemptions, with seven being the most received by Indiana-based Sydor Aerial Photography, LLC. These instances of multiple exemptions for a single company are likely because the scope of their operations varied enough that each use case required its own exemptions. Otherwise, adding a platform or new operational location to an exemption would only require an amendment to the original exemption. There have been over 600 amendments to exemptions thus far.


The nature of the language in each exemption can be vague and leaves open to interpretation the industry or operation each entity will support. For instance, a petition may request “aerial acquisitions and research” or “aerial acquisitions within the National Airspace System.” This phrasing can cover most operations currently conceived with UAS and does not give a precise account of the type of operation that will be supported.

Some petitions take up to half a page to list all of the potential uses, with the phrasing, “including but not limited to,” similarly obscuring the actual operations that will take place. Reasons stated for doing so by the petitioners are to take advantage of servicing multiple markets that require similar operational profiles and to cover commercial work for any new market opportunities that may arise.

This analysis only takes into account key operations that are either 1) explicitly cited in the petition or 2) a main service provided by a company as noted on their website. We have also grouped general photography services into the category “Aerial Photography.” The areas of “Aerial Surveying” and “Aerial Inspection” follow suit for general survey and inspection operations that are not explicitly described. A distinction between survey and inspection applications is defined by the scope of the operation. Whereas survey involves large scope aerial data collection, inspection relies on more nuanced aerial data.

The “Environmental” category includes activities supporting forestry, geological mapping and studies, land management and planning, and even mosquito control, among others. “Emergency Management” covers all first responder or disaster relief activities that are not specifically “Search and Rescue.”


The platform data used in this report were taken from AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems and Robotics Database, which is the world’s largest database of air, ground and maritime unmanned platforms.

The data collected on platforms referenced in the first 5,500+ Section 333 approvals include ~850 platforms with publicly available specifications. These platforms total about 14,600 requests in the first 5,500 exemptions, an average of 2.65 per exemption. The platform data only include those platforms referenced in the exemptions, not necessarily those that are currently registered and operational.

Averages for takeoff weight (MGTOW) and flight time (endurance) only account for averages across each unique platform used for any given category of application. This means that these figures do not take into account that platforms are more popular than others.

For industry-specific analysis, remember that as many petitions may include more than one industry and more than one platform, there is no precise way to measure which of these platforms might be used for which industry application.

To read AUVSI's complete 20-page, first 1,000 exemptions report, click here.