A partnership between the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College and the Verge news-site has spawned a massive database project to track all 500 companies that have been granted Section 333 exemptions by the FAA to fly drones for commercial use. While only standing at about 100 in April, the number of exemptions granted has snowballed over the summer.
Section 333 “provides operators who wish to pursue safe and legal entry into the [National Air Space] a competitive advantage in the UAS marketplace, thus discouraging illegal operations and improving safety,” according to the FAA. The exemption is so far only available to industries covering precision agriculture, film making, power line and pipeline inspections and oil and gas flare stack inspections.
In his in-depth analysis of the exemption rush, Center for the Study of the Drone founder and editor Arthur Holland Michael noted that as the U.S. winds down long-term military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, drones formerly reserved for battle missions are now landing in a kinder, gentler sector of commercial or humanitarian use.
In a recent Verge interview, Michael points out that EnrGies Inc (one of the 500), is giving disabled veterans with drone flight experience the opportunity to fly commercial missions for a variety of clients using military-grade UAVs like the Lockheed Martin Indago and Lockheed Martin Desert Hawk III. The Vereg also points out that Stark Aerospace now has FAA authorization to deploy the military Arrowlite UAV for “domestic infrastructure and utilities inspection.”
Michael reports in the Verge:
“The appearance of military systems is not an accident. In the past couple of years, large defense contractors have been positioning themselves to claim a part of the commercial drone market, which is likely to surpass the military market in size once full regulations are enacted. Military contractors are vocal within the chorus of voices urging the FAA to open up the domestic skies as quickly as possible.”
As far back as 2013, Oregon State began using the Lockheed Unicorn drone to monitor potato crops and companies such as Bosh Precision Agriculture re-purposed military drones by adding cameras that “can take images of crops outside the visible spectrum, showing infrared light. The infrared light that is reflected by a plant shows how efficiently photosynthesis occurs in that plant and can provide insight into its general health.”
Not long after, Aurora Flight Sciences announced it would be dusting off its defunct GoldenEye reconnaissance drone to deliver medicine for humanitarian efforts.
“There’s an urgent need to deliver packages in quarantined areas,” Aurora CEO John Langford stated in a conference. “That’s a perfect role for these kinds of robotic systems early on. You could deliver in supplies and bring out blood samples for analysis.”
And, as detailed in Verge, AeroVironment is a military contractor that is entering the commercial game after garnering Section 333 status. The company will deploy the Puma AE, a military model the company says proved its “value on the battlefield on a regular basis by providing their operators with critical information to help them make better decisions. These advanced tools are already starting to provide the same benefits closer to home.” A few years ago, the U.S. government authorized BP to fly the Puma to conduct surveys in Alaska, pointing out that “the Puma UAS is built with LiDAR and other sensor technologies that work to collect data and imagery of pipelines, roads and gravel pits.”
Jason is a longstanding contributor to DroneLife with an avid interest in all things tech. He focuses on anti-drone technologies and the public safety sector; police, fire, and search and rescue.
Beginning his career as a journalist in 1996, Jason has since written and edited thousands of engaging news articles, blog posts, press releases and online content.