A precision agriculture firm in Charles City, Iowa. A builder performing roof inspection from Carlisle, Kentucky. A company monitoring explosive charges based in Ijamesville, Maryland. A security firm conducting surveillance over private property in Cottage Grove, Oregon. These are just a handful of the businesses now allowed to fly drones over US soil.
Until recently it was extremely difficult to fly a drone for commercial purposes in the US, at least legally. At the start of 2015 just a dozen companies had been granted special exemptions by the FAA to fly, and most of those were for filming on a closed set. The first half of 2015, however, has seen an explosion of new businesses given permission to fly. Over 900 FAA exemptions to fly drones have been handed out to farmers, railroads, security services, and medical facilities.
The number of US companies allowed to fly drones has exploded
These drones are all required to have a human pilot and stay within the operator's line of site. But the FAA is planning to begin making exceptions to that rule. Companies like BNSF railroad are harbingers of a new era in robotics, when autonomous and semi-autonomous machines will drive our streets, sail our seas, and even walk through our bars and shops.
We have partnered with the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College to collect data on every commercial exemption the FAA grants. It's a fascinating snapshot of a fast-growing industry still in its infancy. Below is an interactive database that allows you to drill deeper into details, exploring the companies that have been given permission to fly and what they are planning to do with their drones. You can also search by state and figure out who near you is planning to put a drone in the sky.
Three big takeaways stand out in this first wave of exemptions.
1. DJI, the Chinese drone maker that recently raised venture capital at a lofty valuation, is incredibly dominant.
When asking for an FAA exemption, companies must specify what model of drone they plan to fly. More than half of the first 500 exemptions asked to fly DJI products, and its overall share of the market is likely even higher, as many companies requested multiple DJI drones. Its Hollywood caliber S-class units were certainly popular, but its prosumer-level Inspire One, and basic consumer-grade Phantom units were far and away the most requested among the exemptions."DJI’s apparent dominance can be attributed in large part to the popularity of its drones among recreational users. It’s also a reflection of the types of companies that are receiving exemptions. A large proportion of these companies are startups that are seeking to provide aerial imagery to a range of industries," says Daniel Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. "With that in mind, it’s no wonder that these companies are going to go with the model of drone that users are familiar with and that sets a pretty low barrier to entry. Because of its popularity among recreational drone users and the makeup of the commercial drone industry, DJI got a head start on all the other drone manufacturers."
2. Military grade drones are being repurposed for commercial use:
The drones being flown for commercial purposes have a broad overlap with the ones being used by your average hobbyist. Units from DJI and 3D Robotics that we have reviewed on The Verge are being tested as replacements for field hands and safety inspectors. But there are also drones designed for use on the battlefield now making their way into less intense civilian applications.EnrGies Inc, for example, is a company run and staffed by disabled veterans. It offers up drone pilots with battlefield experience for any sort of mission and has been granted an exemption to fly the Lockheed Martin Indago and Lockheed Martin Desert Hawk III. Stark Aerospace (no, not that Tony Stark) got permission to fly its Arrowlite drone for domestic infrastructure and utilities inspection.
"Defense contractors have been positioning themselves to claim a part of the commercial drone market."
"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," says Arthur Holland Michael, founder and editor of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. "Military contractors are vocal within the chorus of voices urging the FAA to open up the domestic skies as quickly as possible."
AeroVironment, for example, is an established military contractor. It got a commercial exemption to fly its Puma AE, described on the company's site as battleworthy, for commercial agriculture, aerial survey, and "patrol operations." The company described this transition openly. "The Raven, Puma AE, and Wasp UAS prove their 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."
3. The US is finally catching up to Europe and Canada.
Over the last two years, the lack of a legal framework for commercial drone flight in the US has slowed the growth of the industry domestically. Despite creating some of the world's most advanced drone technology, the US was lagging behind other advanced nations in putting that innovation to work. "Getting an FAA exemption was pretty complicated, and hence you mostly had just larger companies, military contractors, and big energy firms spending the effort to obtain them," says Bilal Zuberi, a venture capitalist with investments in the drone industry. "At one point having an exemption was thought of as a real competitive advantage. That's no longer the case. It’s now just a basic, painful, bureaucratic process of standing in line to get your permission."
In the six weeks since we started working on this project, the number of drone exemptions processed by the FAA has nearly doubled. "Over the last 12 months, one of the things I have noticed is major corporations have decided the existential risk of drones is gone," says Zuberi. "Now most big companies have tasked somebody to figure out their "drone" strategy. Previously there was a lot more action happening overseas. Thankfully, that is starting to change."
We'll be working with the Drone Center to refresh the data powering these charts every few weeks. There are now hundreds of exemptions being granted every month, so you can check back here soon for an update on the rapidly evolving shape of this booming industry.
UPDATE 7/13/2015: Revised to reflect earlier exemptions that received an amendment. Added another 201 new exemptions that were issued between 6/5/2015 and 6/30/2015.
UPDATE 8/24/2015 Added link to updated database with 985 entries