So how DO you get a UAS exemption?

When the FAA announced it had issued a few more ‘exemptions’ for UAS operators in America, I decided to call the FAA to find out how many more might be on the cards.

Turns out that it’s the tip of the iceberg and we can expect to see more exemptions being issued as the year goes on. The FAA says it has received ‘petitions’ from 214 wannabe operators and so far 14 of these have been given the thumbs up.

By contrast, Australia’s CASA has issued around 180 ‘approvals’ and in the UK, the CAA has issued a staggering 422 ‘permissions’ . So in this instance, the UK is leading the way forward.


But what of the other 200 US companies that are still waiting to hear if they have an exemption? The FAA told me they ‘should hear within three months of submitting their petition’. Interestingly, that figure of 200 might become much lower as time goes on.

This is because, in some cases, the FAA has had to go back to some of the companies to ask them for more information about how they intend to operate. And guess what? These companies haven’t bothered to reply so the FAA has actually struck those companies out of the running. One less for them to worry about…

I just can’t understand why you’d go to the trouble of putting in a petition to the FAA in the first place and then not bother to send back the extra information the FAA needs to make a decision. Of course, this is good news for the other companies because they’ll get their petition looked at much sooner.

I have started to ponder more about why companies didn’t reply back to the FAA as the weeks have gone past. Could the extra information that the FAA is asking be too difficult for them to file a suitable reply? I decided the best way to answer this might be to look at the 14 exemptions that have issued already and, in particular, how some of them have dealt with the more-difficult questions asked by the FAA. The exemptions breakdown as follows:

• TV and movie making (7 exemptions)
• Construction site monitoring (1 exemption to Clayco, which will operate Skycatch UAVs)
• Precision aerial surveys (1 exemption for Trimble and 2 exemptions for Woolpert Inc)
• Flare stack inspections (1 exemption for VDOS to carry out inspections for Shell Oil)
• Aerial video to augment real-estate listings (1 exemption for Tierra Antigua Realty)
• Crop surveying for precision agriculture (1 exemption)

I looked a bit more into how these companies are using UAS and the majority have created professionally-filmed videos to show exactly how they’re using UAS – if you’re a wannabe UAS operator then you might look to come up with something similar…

Wannabe UAS operators need to read through the 14 petitions on the FAA’s website to see how each of these companies worded their answers to key questions.

More UAS exemptions on the way, says FAA

It strikes me that the difference between being awarded an exemption or not lies in using the correct (and clever) language.

In the case of Tierra Antigua Realty’s petition, the owner of the company, Douglas Trudeau, wrote that while private pilots are prohibited from commercial operations, he can safely operate a UAV (no passengers or crew) and that a pilot’s license will not ensure the skills necessary to fly a UAV and the risks are much lower.

To cover himself completely, Trudeau has even made an application for a 120-day temporary airman certificate to give him time to get a private pilot’s license. He also stated that the flight manual for the operation cannot be on board the aircraft (in this case the UAV) but it will be kept at the ground station.

I’ve seen a similar thing in the UK where Sky-Futures’ training and legislation director, Nick Rogers, has come up with a new training route for UAS operators that mimics the step-by-step approach used in the private pilot and commercial pilot world.

UAS trainees will start on a small UAV first, ‘a bit like flying a Cessna 152’, called ‘Initial’ training, before them moving on to more complex UAVs that are carrying expensive payloads, called Advanced training. He’ll also introduce emergency handling so trainees can cope if the automatic height- and heading-hold functions fail.

He’s also moving it on even further by having ‘Type’ training – a bit like what commercial pilots go through in order to fly an Airbus 320 or Boeing 737 – where companies can bring along the UAS they want to operate and be given training on how to fly it.


No doubt, it helps that Nick Rogers is a current serving 747 pilot and understands how manned pilot licencing works.

I’ve since read that in many of the exemptions/permissions/approvals given to companies, there seems to be an employee on board that has some degree of understanding of ‘manned’ flying licences and the level of proficiency required to operate UAS – and I think this will be extremely important in the future rule-making around UAS being allowed to operate in open airspace.

The future all hinges on language – the FAA currently classes a UAV as an aircraft and as such it means UAVs are subject to the same rules that ‘aircraft’ face – apart from when they are ‘exempt’. Thankfully the Americans’ exemption process seems to be working well, as does the UK’s…

But what about the thousands of people that are going out and buying drones either for fun or to unknowingly start using them in a commercial activity?

For this I’d like to see a two-day training course introduced that’s a bit like a motorcycle CBT (compulsory basic training). Before anyone can buy a drone they’ll have to show their CBT licence to the seller and then keep it on them while they’re flying it in the future.

Even a card issued to people after sitting an online test about the rules and regs on the CAA website would help, something akin to a fishing licence. Just at least something that prevents a defence of ‘oh I didn’t realise there are rules’.

I personally think the the future integration of UAS is in the laps of lawyers who have the clever ability to use the right language.

Maybe we need a new way to describe aircraft and UAS collectively? How about ‘vehicles that fly’? Something I’m going to call VTF.

Then again, if there’s one thing aviation doesn’t need, then it’s another acronym…


  • Here’s what the US companies with exemptions are up to:

Aerial MOB carried out the filming for Nike’s ‘Risk Everything’ campaign

Pictorvision Inc describes how it is using UAVs here

HeliVideo Productions

HeliVideo Productions 2014 Reel from Heli Video Productions LLC on Vimeo.

Snaproll Media

2012 reel from SnapRoll Media on Vimeo.

RC Pro Productions Consulting LLC dBa Vortex Aerial

Flying Cam

Clayco will use a Skycatch UAV to carry out construction site surveys.

Trimble’s UX5 drone weighs 5.5 pounds and performs precision aerial surveys by taking digital photographs

Woolpert plans to fly Altavian Nova Block III drones, which weigh 15 pounds and are 5 feet long with a 9-foot wing span, to map rural Ohio and Ship Island, Miss.

VDOS plans to fly Aeryon SkyRanger drones to inspect flare stacks for Shell Oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tierra Antigua Realty

Advanced Aerial Solutions plans to fly an eBee senseFly UAV


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