If you’re a business (real estate, agriculture, etc.) and have been looking into using drone video for your business then you’ve probably heard about a hundred times by now: make sure your drone provider is operating legally.
And you’re probably still wondering, “What does that mean, and how can I find out?”
It boils down to this: Ask for the document.
The rules continue to change, but the status today, and for the foreseeable future, is that any commercial drone application will need to have a Section 333 Exemption from the FAA. Ask your potential provider to give you a copy of the letter from the FAA including the exemption number, and then check that against the FAA registry.
Check petitions in progress – these are the petitions, not the granted exemptions. It is possible that your provider may have an application started, but not completed.
Check FAA Authorized Exemptions – This is where you want to look to find your operator. If they are listed here then they are good to go, assuming you’ve vetted them for safety and insurance. Due to an FAA backlog, a provider may have the exemption, but not appear at this link; they may have the approval letter, though.
Here is a sample of an approval letter from the FAA. They all follow the same format. Look for the FAA docket number and Exemption number at the top of the first page. Your provider should be able to give you this information. In the current legal climate it would be unusual if they don’t have it posted prominently on their web page.
The exemption takes months to get approved, so often the operators when pressed will tell you that they are “in process” or something like that. That is no different from building contractors who claim to have a license but can’t actually produce one.
As previously stated, the backlog is huge, and the online database takes time to catch up so it is possible that your provider has approval, but doesn’t show up in the database yet. In that case they should still have a letter and it should be dated fairly recently.
If they show you an FAA number (N number) on the drone, that simply means that they have registered the craft, but that has no bearing on the status of the exemption, and is not adequate to allow commercial operations.
You should care, because at the very least, you could be asked to take down your content. At the worst you could be prosecuted. It is tiring to keep hearing about the shades of grey, but hopefully this adds a little whitespace to the conversation.