As of February, the FAA had granted 26 exemptions to operators to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, commercially. That activity wasn’t allowed before Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Section 333 of the act, titled “Special Rules for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” gave the agency the discretion to exempt small drones that it determines can be flown safely for specific operations—that is, until it drafts a uniform regulation. There were more than 300 applications awaiting the agency’s approval.
The first “Section 333” approvals illustrated some of the many missions commercial drones can perform, such as filming movie sets from above, monitoring construction sites, assessing crop health, producing real-estate video or inspecting flare stacks on offshore oil platforms. Many of those drones, though, were rotary-wing aircraft, and that presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the helicopter industry. Will small, inexpensive-to-operate drones replace helicopters in some roles, such as for moviemaking, aerial surveying and news gathering? Or will drones fatten the portfolio of services that current helicopter operators already provide?