The number of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) authorized to fly in U.S. airspace has topped 1,000 under a law that allows case-by-case exemptions for pilots to fly outside of existing flight restrictions and to sell the data they collect as a service.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continues to expand the allowed uses of unmanned aerial vehicles over U.S. soil outside of what is already allowed for hobbyists. Without an airworthiness certificate granted under the exemption process, drones must be flown within a pilot’s line of sight and below 400 feet while the operator cannot sell any photography or data gathered during flight.

The popular quadcopter UAV developed by China's DJI. Photo: DJI
The popular quadcopter UAV developed by China’s DJI. Photo: DJI

Under current FAA rules, unmanned aircraft cannot be used for commercial purposes. They also have flight restrictions placed on them, unless granted an exemption under Section 333 of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act.

As of Tuesday, the FAA had granted 1,008 airworthiness certificates. A full list of the companies granted exemptions and their intended purpose is available here.

Thirteen airworthiness certificates were granted on Aug. 3 alone. The “operation/mission” section of the FAA website shows that almost all of the exemptions were granted for UAVs to be flown for aerial photography, videography and data collection. Other listed uses include agricultural mapping, aerial inspection, surveying and real estate marketing.

“Many of the grants the FAA has issued allow aerial filming for uses such as motion picture production, precision agriculture and real estate photography,” the FAA said in a statement. “The agency also has issued grants for new and novel approaches to inspecting power distribution towers and wiring, railroad infrastructure and bridges.”

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) in late July found that the first 500 airworthiness certificates granted went to 48 states in support of 20 industries led by real estate, agriculture and construction. California, Texas and Florida had the most exemptions, AUVSI found.

“Businesses across every industry sector have been waiting to use UAS for years and are excited to finally get this technology off the ground,” Brian Wynne, president and chief executive of AUVSI, said in a July 30 statement. “From inspecting pipelines and surveying bridges to filming movies and providing farmers with aerial views of their crops, the applications of UAS are virtually limitless and offer a superior way to see what needs to be seen, in less time and at less expense.”

AUVSI’s report said 80 percent of the first 500 exemptions were granted to small businesses and that the 196 companies granted airworthiness certificates generate a total $500 billion annually.

In response to a high demand for exemptions, the FAA recently streamlined the process to obtain approval under Section 333.

In March, the agency began issuing “blanket” certificates of waiver or authorization allowing flights anywhere in the country at or below 200 feet except in restricted airspace, close to airports, and other areas, such as major cities where the FAA prohibits UAS operations.  Previously, an operator had to apply for and receive a certificate of authorization (COA) for a particular block of airspace, a process that can take as long as 60 days, the FAA said.

AUVSI applauded the FAA’s efforts to speed up the permitting process, but said it was no substitute for firm, transparent rules governing commercial drone flight in the national airspace.

“This current system of case-by-case approvals isn’t a long-term solution for the many businesses wanting to fly. As an industry, we want to see the integration of UAS proceed and without any further delays,” Wynne said. “The FAA needs to finalize the small UAS rules as quickly as possible. Once this happens, we will have an established framework for UAS operations that will allow anyone who follows the rules to fly.”