How to Fly Commercially: A Complete Guide for Section 333 Exemptions



Since late May 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration has been accepting petitions for exemption to fly unmanned aircraft systems commercially in the National Airspace System, which is allowed under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The agency granted its first exemptions on Sept. 25, 2014. Since the onset, the FAA has received over 1,000 petitions as of the end of April 2015 and granted about 250.

As of April 24, the comment period on the FAA’s proposed rules for commercial operation of small UAS in the NAS ended. The FAA is in the process of drafting a final version of the rules. Until they are finalized, access to airspace for companies is only available through the Section 333 process, which can seem complicated and time consuming.

This primer will help guide any commercial entities looking to use small unmanned aircraft, or drones, as part of their business operations by simplifying the process with a step-by-step outline.

All of the regulations governing aircraft use fall under Title 14 CFR. This is the Code of Federal Regulations for Aeronautics and Space and can be found in its entirety here. This will be especially important for identifying sections from which exemption is needed.

Section §11.81 of 14 CFR is titled “What Information Must I Include in My Petition for an Exemption?” and contains a short, precise list of what must be included in a petition. This list can be found here on the homepage for "Guidelines for Submitting a Petition Exemption" set up by the FAA. You can also find other useful information there, including a frequently asked questions section. 

The list is as follows:

1. Your name, mailing address and, if you wish, other contact information, such as a fax number, telephone number or email address

2. The specific section or sections of 14 CFR from which you seek an exemption

3. The extent of relief you seek and the reason you seek the relief

4. The reasons why granting your request would be in the public interest — that is, how it would benefit the public as a whole

5. The reasons why granting the exemption would not adversely affect safety, or how the exemption would provide a level of safety at least equal to that provided by the rule from which you seek the exemption

6. A summary the FAA can publish in the Federal Register, stating:

a. The rule from which you seek the exemption

b. A brief description of the nature of the exemption you seek.

7. Any additional information, views or arguments available to support your request

8. If you want to exercise the privileges of your exemption outside the United States, the reason why you need to do so.

If you fail to include any of these points in your petition, the FAA will deny the request with a 30-day grace period to submit more information.

This document contains information, including a list of regulations that may require exemption, but the main guidelines for what must be included in an exemption request are the following:

1. How UAS operation will be safely conducted, including all information about the design and features of the UAS petitioners intend to use

2. Inspection, maintenance, repair or other procedures to ensure UAS is in safe working order. This can be included in the petition or a supporting document such as a flight manual

3. A description of the radio frequency spectrum and any other equipment, such as sensors or cameras, that are part of the UAS and whether they comply with the appropriate government oversight agency, i.e. Federal Communications Commission

4. Description of pilot in command (PIC) qualifications, including flight times and spotter qualifications as well

5. Medical standards and certification of PIC

6. A full description of intended use and how it would provide at least an equivalent level of safety to that provided by the rule from which exemption is sought

7. Specifics on the maximum operating speed and altitude, minimum flight visibility, and distance from clouds. Discuss potential hazards and safety mitigations, such as the UAS will return to a designated location if communication is lost

8. A description of the characteristics of the intended area of use

9. A description of any intention to operate near an airport

10. A description of how the visual line-of-sight mandate will be met

11. A description of procedures for preflight safety risk assessment. This can also be included in a supporting document

12. Intention to conduct operations that have existing requirements to notify Flight Standards District Offices before operations, such as motion picture filming or power line patrol, and intended coordination of this requirement

13. Additionally, petitioners may require certificate of authorization, which can be found here.

Please email the FAA/UAS office at with any questions or for more information regarding Certificates of Waiver or Authorization.

The UAS COA Online System provides applicants with an electronic method of requesting a COA. Applicants will need to obtain an account in order to access the online system.

A COA requires UAS to be registered with the FAA. Information on registering a UAS and requesting N numbers can be found here on the AUVSI website.

The FAA has created a streamlined COA process for commercial operations “to respond to the current demands and to bridge existing UAS operations with the proposed small UAS rule,” according to an FAA memorandum. 

This blanket COA will allow commercial operators to fly without receiving special authorization under certain operational parameters.

The parameters require flights to remain at or below 200 feet above ground level during daylight visual flight rule conditions, at least two nautical miles from airports and five miles from airports with an operational control tower, and the pilot in command must have at least a private pilot license. The aircraft used must weigh less than 55 pounds and the operator must issue a notice to airmen at least 24 hours before the proposed operations.

On an FAA supplemental guidance notice, the agency provides a link to Astraeus Aerial’s Grant of Exemption as an example of a successful petition. Here you can look at the specific sections Astraeus applied for exemptions on and how the company addressed each. 

With the new summary grant process the FAA is using to grant exemptions, reviewing and adopting requests from previously granted exemptions is the best method for achieving approval. With summary grants, the FAA can quickly approve petitions where the proposed operational profile aligns with a previously granted exemption.

A list of all granted exemptions with links to the authorization decision can be found at

All submitted petitions can be reviewed at with a “Section 333” search. Sort by most recent.

The FAA recommends petitions be submitted through the Internet at, the Federal Docket Management System, at least 120 days before the exemption is required.

On the homepage enter “FAA-2007-0001-0001” into the search bar. This is a Shell Docket for Exemption that has been created for all new petitions. The FAA will issue a new and unique number when they receive the request. The docket should be titled, “Instructions on Filing a Submission to FAA for applications/petitions/exemptions and any other items for which a Docket does not exist.” Once you see the docket, click the blue button that says “Comment Now.”

Fill out all the required information and any optional information. In the comment section, write something to the effect of “THIS IS A NEW PETITION FOR EXEMPTION. PLEASE SEE UPLOADED FILE." This section has a character limit and is not where the petition should go.

Use a word processor to create your petition and check spelling and grammar. Then upload document plus any supporting files.

Print the confirmation sheet in case your petition is not posted within a few days.