August 25, 2015Client Alert

Drones: Regulations Affecting Commercial Use

“Drones.” The word conjures up visions of everything from unmanned planes used for military intelligence gathering and weapons to small vehicles with multiple propellers that look like a sophisticated toy flown by someone in their backyard. Now imagine them being used not just by video production companies, but by:

  • Farmers, to evaluate their land, crops, herds, etc.;
  • Broadcasters, for news coverage;
  • Utilities, to inspect their pipelines, electrical lines and other infrastructure;
  • Companies, for commercial/industrial imaging, 3D modeling and surveying;
  • MLB and NFL teams, in and around their open-air stadiums


You get the picture. Camera equipped drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as they are also known, are becoming increasingly common.


While recreational drones do not need any kind of license, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has imposed height of operation and other restrictions on them including a requirement that recreational UAVs not be operated near people or airports. However, for non-recreational uses, it has been difficult for regulators to keep up with the rapid growth in popularity and technical advancements of UAVs. While the current regulations are viewed as challenging, the FAA is in the process of formulating new regulations that would allow for routine use of certain small UAVs. These regulations would apply to UAVs under 55 pounds conducting non-recreational operations. However, the new regulations are not final.


Until the new regulations are issued, the current regulations continue to apply to commercial operators. For now, the main requirements needed to operate a UAV for a business are:


  1. Section 333 grant of exemption from the FAA;
  2. Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA;
  3. UAV registered with the FAA; and
  4. Pilot with an FAA airman certificate.


To be clear, flying only for hobby or recreational purposes does not require an FAA authorization in the form of a Section 333 grant of exemption. But, if you are flying a UAV to supplement or aid your business, even if you are not charging fees for doing so, you will need the Section 333 grant of exemption, along with requirements 2, 3 and 4 above.


A number of companies have met these requirements. For more information, please contact your Michael Best attorney or Steven L. Ritt at or 608.283.4421.
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