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Five New FAA Commercial UAV Exemptions — What Do They Mean?

December 11, 2014  - By 4 Comments
Aeryon SkyRanger

The Aeryon SkyRanger.

UPDATE: 1 p.m. US Pacific Time, Dec. 12. See statement from Trimble Navigation below.

In a major step towards allowing unmanned aerial systems (UAS, UAV, drones) to be used for commercial purposes in the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted five exemptions to four companies this week, allowing commercial UAS operation with an extensive list of conditions and limitations.

If you recall from previous articles such as this one, the FAA says it’s illegal to operate a UAS for commercial purposes in the United States.

But, take a look at this article: FAA Says Commercial Drone Operations Are Illegal… Public Says So What?

Then, when the FAA attempted an enforcement action against a person (Pirker) using a UAS for commercial purposes, an NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) administrative law judge sided with the person, not the FAA.

Clear as mud?

Of course, the FAA appealed the NTSB opinion v. Pirker, and won. Click here to see the documents explaining the decision. Essentially, the NTSB ruled that a UAS is considered close enough to a manned aircraft that UAS fall under similar rules, and that the FAA is within its rights to apply the rules of careless or reckless operations to UAS as it does with manned aircraft.

So, after some legal wrangling, the rules seem to be as the FAA has stated: no commercial UAS operations. However, under order from the Obama Administration, the FAA is working on developing rules to allow commercial UAS operation in the U.S. The deadline for those rules to be released is September 2015, but there is much speculation that this deadline will not be met.

That said, the FAA is not waiting until September 2015.


In June 2014, the FAA issued the first UAS commercial use CoA (Certificate of Waiver or Authorization) to BP (British Petroleum) to allow commercial use of a particular UAS for surveying roads, pipelines and equipment in Alaska.

Then, in September 2014, the FAA issued CoAs to six aerial photo and video production companies in the film and television industry.

It should be noted that each CoA includes an extensive list of conditions and limitations, which are not necessarily the same, but similar (more on that below).

That brings us to yesterday, December 10, 2014. On that day, the FAA announced it has issued exemptions to four companies for commercial UAS operations: Trimble Navigation, VDOS Global LLC, Clayco, and Woolpert.

Looking at these four companies, it’s interesting that three of them are service providers and one is a manufacturer of UAS: Trimble. One might assume that, since Trimble is a manufacturer of UAS, the FAA exemption might carry over to its customers. After checking in with several people on this, the exemption appears to be only for Trimble owned-and-operated UAS, not customers. However, it doesn’t appear that the operator must be a Trimble employee (as opposed to a contractor). In that case, Trimble, as a manufacturer, could potentially deploy UAS under this exemption and have contract pilots operating Trimble-owned UAS.

Following is a statement from Todd Steiner, Trimble’s marketing director for geospatial imaging solutions:

“In the near term, Trimble will use this exemption to begin conducting research activities, sales demonstrations, and flight training with our partners and customers within the U.S. We will also initiate commercial activity as we pursue follow on steps with the FAA.

“In addition, we are working to determine how this exemption might be further leveraged to help our partners and customers. With Trimble’s authorization in place, we can directly support their needs where that is appropriate. Our customers and partners will also be able to apply for authorization to operate our UAS under the conditions of our exemption.

“We believe that these authorizations will be available on a more streamlined basis now that Trimble has received its exemption. We will communicate to our partners and customers as more information is available.”

The exemptions are valid until December 31, 2016, unless rescinded or superceded.

Conditions and Limitations

For each FAA exemption granted, there’s a long list of conditions and limitations for each grantee. You can read the detailed list of these at the bottom of each document issued to the specific company.




Woolpert #1, Woolpert #2

Although the conditions and limitations vary with each exemption issued, there are some common to all:

  • UAS must operate below 400 feet above ground level.
  • UAS must obey the speed limit (varies by UAS).
  • UAS must be within VLOS (visual line of sight) at all times by pilot in command.
  • All operations must have a second person, a VO (visual observer).
  • Pilot in command must possess at least an FAA private pilot certificate (some exemptions require a commercial certificate) and a third-class airman medical certificate.

There are many more conditions and limitations, but this gives you an idea of what is required. The Trimble exemption contains 35 such items, so before you get too excited, take a look at the complete list of conditions and limitations. It’s not a simple endeavor.

On a positive note, the FAA is making an effort and making progress. For an agency that has a reputation of moving very slowly and methodically, this is near lightning speed.

Thanks, and see you next month.

Happy Holidays!

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This article is tagged with and posted in GSS Monthly, Opinions, UAS/UAV
Eric Gakstatter

About the Author:

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as a consultant with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributing editor to GPS World magazine and the Geospatial Solutions website. He is the editor of Geospatial Solutions Monthly, a weekly newsletter focused on geospatial technologies. Follow Eric on Twitter at @GPSGIS_Eric.

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