GIS-related FAA drone exemptions represent 16% of first 2000 issued

By Bill McNeil

The FAA has yet to issue guidelines under which commercial drones or UAVs can operate, but that doesn’t mean you can’t legally conduct commercial drone flight operations. Exceptions are being granted for those companies or individuals that file a petition for exemption under the FAA’s Section 333

Per the FAA’s website: “As of March 23, 2015, the FAA will automatically grant a "blanket" COA (Certificate of Authorization)for flights at or below 200 feet to any UAS operator with a Section 333 exemption, provided the aircraft weighs less than 55 pounds, operations are conducted during daytime Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions within visual-line-of-sight (VLOS) of the pilot, and certain distances away from airports or heliports. Details are available here.” A list of companies that have applied for and been granted Section 333 exceptions is available on the FAA’s website.



As of November 16, 2015, we conducted an informal analysis of the first 2000 granted exemptions. Our goal was to understand how strong the demand is for a UAV data-gathering tool in general, and for GIS and geospatial applications in particular, as well to understand how the demand varies across the country.

We began by defining the following categories:

  • Photography — including filming, motion picture, cinematography, videography, television, aerial imaging and thermography.
  • GIS & Geospatial — including survey, mapping, mining, remote sensing, orthomosaics, photogrammetry and landscape.
  • Inspections — including construction, power line, pipe line, railroads and other utilities.
  • Real Estate — all types.
  • Agriculture, including precision, crop scouting, crop insurance and other agriculture.
  • Insurance — including crop insurance and damage assessment. 
  • Search and Rescue.

It is important to note that the study was not strictly scientific; the accuracy of the results may have been affected by several factors:

  1. The missions or applications listed in the Section 333 exemption application may not be the only ones that a company will ultimately perform, and
  2. Some companies listed multiple missions. As an example, Utility Aerial Service in McLean, VA listed their mission as utility inspections, but Parametrix of Seattle, WA listed their missions as aerial photography, videography, surveying, photogrammetry and inspections. For the purpose of representation, we added one mission to the Inspection category in the case of Aerial Service, but for Parametrix, we added one mission for Photography (photography and videography), one for GIS (surveying and photogrammetry) and one for Inspections.
  3. There are also the issues of defining categories and interpreting the correct category from mission descriptions. 

Exemptions Granted by State

For the most part, exemptions granted by the FAA roughly tracked state population, but there were exceptions. For instance, despite having half the population of California, Florida had the highest number of granted exemptions. Virginia ranks twelfth by population but fourth by number of exemptions.

Below are the ten states with the greatest number of exemptions: 

States with the Most Exemptions

 

State/Country

No. of Companies

Florida

228

California

221

Texas

153

Virginia

88

Illinois

70

Colorado

66

Ohio

60

Pennsylvania

58

Arizona

58

North Carolina

55

 

The cluster map below illustrates the number of companies granted exemptions in each state.

Application by Industry Segment

Our research indicates that over 30 percent of the exemptions issued are for photography — no surprise there. But perhaps more interesting is that the GIS & Geospatial category ranked number two, at 16 percent. If we include agriculture to the GIS mix, it boosts the category to over 21 percent.  

Industry Categories by Percentage and Count

Rank

Industry

# Operations/Mission

Percentage

1

Photography

1282

30.4

2

GIS & Geospatial

698

16.5

3

Inspections

70

1.7

4

Real estate

367

8.7

5

Agriculture

202

4.8

6

Insurance

39

0.9

7

Search and Rescue

106

2.5

8

Others

1460

34.6

 

GIS and Geospatial Exemptions Granted by State

We then filtered the GIS & Geospatial data by state, as shown in the table below.

States with the Most Exemptions for

GIS & Geospatial Applications

Rank

State Name

Abbr.

No. of Companies

1

Florida

FL

72

2

California

CA

72

3

Texas

TX

60

4

Virginia

VA

30

8

Pennsylvania

PA

27

6

Colorado

CO

26

5

Illinois

IL

20

12

New York

NY

19

9

Arizona

AZ

18

10

North Carolina

NC

17

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cluster and point maps below illustrate location groupings and points for the exemptions granted for GIS & Geospatial applications across the country. 

 

Drone Manufacturers

Companies filing for exemptions were required to list the drone models and manufacturers they planned to use for commercial work. The table and pie chart below ranks the top 15 UAV companies being used. The actual count far exceeds the total number of UAV manufacturers because many companies listed more than one drone manufacturer and, in some cases, more than one model from the same UAV manufacturer. As an example, uMap of Denver indicated they were going to use the DJI Phantom 3, DJI S1000+, senseFly eBee, and senseFly eBee RTK. This conflated into two counts for DJI and two for senseFly. 

Rank

Manufacturers

Count

1

DJI

2628

2

3D Robotics

250

3

senseFly

91

4

Yuneec

64

5

Trimble

45

6

Tarot

38

7

Blade

34

8

Freefly

32

9

Aeryon

27

10

Altavian

23

11

Draganfly Innovations

18

12

VikingUAS

17

13

Precision Hawk

17

14

Microdrones

16

15

SteadiDrone

12

 

 

The table and pie chart below show the top 15 manufacturers of the drones being used for GIS & Geospatial applications. 

Rank

Manufacturers

Count

Percentage

1

DJI

845

66.02

2

3D Robotics

106

8.28

3

senseFly

65

5.08

4

Trimble

36

2.81

5

Yuneec

25

1.95

6

Tarot

12

0.94

7

Aeryon

10

0.78

8

Altavian

10

0.78

9

VikingUAS

9

0.70

10

Draganfly Innovations

8

0.63

11

Precision Hawk

8

0.63

12

Blade

7

0.55

13

AgEagle

7

0.55

14

SteadiDrone

6

0.47

15

Hawkeye

6

0.47

Summary

After analyzing over 2000 records of Section 333 exemptions granted by the FAA, the research shows that over 16 percent of all granted exemptions were GIS or geospatial related, and that number increases to over 20 percent when agricultural applications are added. The dominant UAV company, regardless of application, was DJI. 3D Robotics was second.

Based on this research, it would certainly seem that inexpensive UAVs will disrupt the GIS & Geospatial industry. It’s a game-changer that is not only rippling through the hardware segment — light weight cameras and other sensing devices — but is also driving down software costs.

In the coming months we'll take a closer look at the different GIS categories to determine which specific segments are, or will be, positively affected by commercial drone flights. We’ll also examine the types of UAVs, fixed wing or copter, being used for GIS applications.

Additional Note: Starting next Monday, December 21st, the FAA (https://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/faqs/) is requiring all UASs weighting less than 55 pounds and more than .55 pounds to be registered.    Owners of drones purchased prior to December 21, 2015 will have 60 days to register. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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