The FAA began issuing 333 exemptions in September of 2014 as a stopgap measure to allow certain low-risk commercial drone operations while the industry waits for the full regulations. Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 enables the Secretary of Transportation authority to determine if a UAV requires an airworthiness certificate in order to operate in national airspace. The FAA recently streamlined the process for operators to access national airspace to address growing demand for Section 333 authorizations.
Until recently it was extremely difficult to fly a drone for commercial purposes in the US, at least legally. At the start of 2015 just a dozen companies had been granted special exemptions by the FAA to fly, and most of those were for filming on a closed set. The first half of 2015, however, has seen an explosion of new businesses given permission to fly. Many of the grants issued by the FAA allow aerial filming for uses such as real estate photography, precision agriculture and motion picture production. Grants have also been given for power distribution tower and wiring inspections and bridge and railroad infrastructure inspections.
Today more than 700 companies were granted to fly drones for commercial purposes over the US. The number of exemptions granted by the FAA has been growing very quickly in the last month. The rate of issued exemptions reached a level of about 230 new exemptions per month, which probably shows the maximal throughput on the authorities side.
In March, the FAA began issuing blanket certificates of waiver or authorization to Section 333 exemption holders. To speed up Section 333 petitions processing, the FAA began issuing summary grants in April for operations similar to those previously approved.
If this pace is being maintained in a year from now there might be more than 3400 certified operator in the US.
In order to receive an exemption, companies and individuals must describe, among other details, exactly what kind of drone they will be using and how they will be using it.
The heat map above shows the hot spots of drone operation over the US.