I often get asked the question from UAS operators — “Why do I need to get approved?” — and the answer can be tricky. The average drone operator out there is not a fool. They have flown safely as an amateur or hobbyist for a few years, have developed the skills and confidence that comes with flight ops., and now want to venture into making money with their unique and in-demand skill. So, the idea of getting approved for the same flights they have undertaken previously, rankles the soon to be professional. Often, they see the regulatory process and approvals system as a hurdle that is difficult to overcome, confusing, and down-right superfluous to them flying safely in an environment they understand already. For some, they choose to disregard FAA guidelines, eschew the regulatory process, and venture out on their own to make money. While I don’t agree with their decision, I understand how they make this choice and fully understand their dismay with the standardization process. However, as the process gets easier and the burden to entry lowers ever more, the risk that those business operators take upon themselves is simply not worth the poor decision. With minimal time or financial investment, any operator can become legally safe in their operation; able to get insurance, and to move forward with a firm and positive foundation.
As a safety professional, a business person, and someone who believes in following the law, I explain that when it comes to doing business, it is important to do it right. Integrity, honesty, and trust go hand-in-hand with success and it is only by following the law (regardless as to the opacity of its development or the speed by which it evolves) that a business can be successful. Often, that same entrepreneur looks dismayed, but I think, for the most part, the message gets across.
Recently, there has been extraordinary reason to smile. The Federal Aviation Administration and the wheels of government have been moving at an unprecedented rate, and we have seen the number of approvals for sUAS flight operations sky rocket. To illustrate this point, I drew upon the FAA’s Section 333 database to show how quickly the pace of approval and release has become to give hope to all those entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, and business folks. When I started this writing, for example, I could swear that there were a total of 664 approved exemptions, but as I hit publish, the number is explained to be 696 with only 85 declined. That is a pretty solid success rate, and goes to show that if the paper work is done correctly, and an appreciation for safety is your number one policy statement, you too can be operating safely and legally.
I don’t want to leave with such little information. I want to also illustrate the diversity that exists in these approved operation plans. While the types of operations range from animal conversation and wildfire monitoring to recreational use and some applicants with an interest in racing, you can generally find the five major operations that have been approved – Surveying or mapping, real estate photography, agricultural monitoring, film or videography, and photography. While there are often overlaps, the graphic below gives a good indicator of what missions are being approved and in what ratio. Clearly, industrial needs and the unique operative characteristics of UAS for dirty, dangerous, or dull missions makes drones uniquely qualified for excelling in surveys and mapping.