Understanding The FAA

What You Need To Know To Start A Drone Business

Drones are still fairly new, and regulations are failing to keep up with their growing popularity.

Governments are rushing to create laws that will regulate the operation of drones. The Federal Government has yet to pass any laws regarding drones, but some city and state governments are enforcing policies that limit their use. The FAA has proposed temporary rules, but many people argue that they do not have the authority to regulate drones. Regulations are changing so rapidly, that is has become difficult to understand the legality of drones.

The purpose of this article is to remove any confusion surrounding the legality of flying drones.

We Answer Common Questions Including:

  • Who is the FAA and can they regulate how I fly my drone?
  • What are the laws surrounding drones?
  • Can I fly my drone for money?
  • How should I decide whether or not to get a Section 333 exemption?
  • How to Operate Outside FAA Regulations
    • Is it illegal to not follow regulations?
    • What can happen if I don’t follow regulations?
  • How to Follow FAA Regulations
    • What is a Section 333 Exemption?
    • How do I get my Section 333 Exemption?
    • Do I need a pilot’s license?
    • How do I register my drone?

* The information offered in this article is condensed from an extended research process. For more details and  information on individual subjects make sure to review the included references.

Who is the FAA?

Can They Regulate How I Fly My Drone?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the government agency in charge of regulating air space in the U.S.

Does the FAA have the authority to regulate how I fly my drone?

The short answer is no, the FAA cannot regulate the operation of remote-controlled model aircraft.

According to Peter Sachs, Esq. of the Drone Law Journal blog, the FAA has basic standing guidelines, but not directly enforceable laws.

Drones are classified by the FAA as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), and despite falling under the same classification as model aircraft they are in the process of becoming regulated by the FAA.

Can I fly my drone for money?

Yes, many people already make a living off flying their drone. From aerial photographers to land surveyors and property managers, drones have opened the door to a new generation of entrepreneurs.

What are the laws surrounding drones?

There are currently no federal laws specifically targeting drones. For now, drones fall under the UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) FAA classification, and as with all aircraft the FAA expects them to obey safety regulations. Some states have started drafting laws to regulate drones.

How does the FAA regulate commercial drone flight?

The FAA has instituted a regulatory process for operators wishing to use their drones commercially. In Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) the FAA claims the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for a UAS to operate safely in the NAS(National Air Space). The individual or entity wishing to use national airspace for conducting commercial operations with UAS must file for a Section 333 Exemption in order to operate without an airworthiness certificate and charge for the drone flight.

What are the FAA’s drone regulations?

The FAA has developed a list of guidelines that limit how people can fly their drones:

  • Don’t fly above 400ft AGL
  • Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport/landing strip
  • Keep your craft within line of sight
  • Don’t fly in NOAA zones and obey all TFRs/FRZs (Temporary Flight Restrictions/Flight Restricted Zones)
  • Fly safely (not near pedestrians, wildlife, buildings/property, etc. – common sense)

Flying With vs Without an FAA Exemption

Choosing whether or not to pursue a Section 333 Exemption can be a tough decision. Although most drone businesses choose to start without their exemption, there are pros and cons to both sides.

Without FAA Exemption


  • Legal
  • No hassle, No consequences
  • Start Your Business Now
  • Regulations will change often until law is drafted. Section 333 Exemption may become unnecessary or replaced by a new process soon.


  • Shooting in some cases may require permits that are only granted to operators following FAA regulations (Universities, Nat. Parks, Government Property)
  • Can be asked to cease and desist operations by the FAA (uncommon)

With FAA Exemption


  • Legal
  • Can be a selling point (Not many operators are exempt)
  • Access to job opportunities non-exempt operators do not have
  • Increases apparent level of professionalism


  • Exemption takes 120 days to process (according to FAA)
  • Requires pilot’s license
  • Current process for commercial UAS operation will become outdated in the near future. Exemption may not be required soon.

How to Operate Outside FAA Regulations

Is it illegal to not follow regulations?

No it is not. The regulations and guidelines outlined by the FAA are not law; they are suggested parameters for flying drones.

What can happen if I don’t follow regulations?

The FAA has no legal authority to enforce any of their regulations on drones. If it becomes apparent to the FAA that an operator is conducting business outside of their stipulated regulations they will send the operator a cease and desist order. Currently, there is no precedent for legal action taken against an operator specifically for operating outside of regulations.

Is there anything I should worry about?

No. Despite the existence of FAA regulations and a follow up process (cease and desist) for offenders the FAA has not taken any action on trying to locate and terminate non-regulated operations. Be sure to pay attention to upcoming registration laws.

Existing aerial photography firms did not cease operations following the FAA’s reform that required a Section 333 Exemption. Most of them continued operations and only charged for post-production editing and claimed their flight was for “pure enjoyment”. This loophole is still widely used today.

How to Follow FAA Regulations

Following FAA guidelines involves acquiring 3 items

  • Section 333 Exemption

  • Pilot’s License

  • Registered Drone

These items are listed from top to bottom in the priority we believe they should be approached.

Applying for Section 333 Exemption should be your top priority since it takes 40 days for your petition to even get on the docket. The FAA gives themselves a 120 day period to process any request.

People spend thousands of dollars hiring a legal team to draft their exemption request for them when it really is not necessary.
A list of all approved Section 333 exemption requests can be found here: Authorized Sec. 333 Requests.
If you go to regulations.gov you can find their actual Section 333 Exemption application.
By searching for approved exemption requests that match your purpose for applying, you can find pre-approved templates for requesting your exemption.

What is a Section 333 Exemption?

Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR), Aeronautics and Space, contains rules issued by the FAA governing all civil aviation in the United States. You are entitled to submit a petition for exemption if you believe:

  • Following a rule will burden you
  • You can provide a level of safety at least equal to that provided by the rule from which you seek the exemption
  • Your request is in the public interest.

Some of the rules outlined in 14 CFR only apply to aircraft that require an Airworthiness Certificate. Section 333 establishes a protocol for determining whether or not UAS require an Airworthiness Certificate.

When submitting your Section 333 Exemption what is happening is that pursuant to Section 333 you are proposing that your drone should not need an Airworthiness Certificate and because of this you should be exempt from rules X, Y and Z of 14 CFR which only apply to aircraft with Airworthiness Certificates.

How do I get my Section 333 Exemption?

Now that you understand what it is you are trying to accomplish by submitting your Section 333 Exemption you can move on to drafting your exemption.

First it is important to note the elements an FAA exemption request requires:

  1. Your name and mailing 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. How your request would benefit the public as a whole
  5. Reasons why the exemption would not adversely affect safety, or how the exemption would provide a level of safety at least equal to the existing rule
  6. A summary that can be published in the Federal Register stating:
    1. The rule from which you seek an exemption
    2. A brief description of the exemption you seek
  7. Any additional information, views, or arguments available to support your request

Section 333 Exemption requests to fly drones commercially for photography and videography can be as short as 1 page or as long as 30+ pages. As long as they include all the previously listed information they will be GRANTED.

A good format to follow when applying for your exemption is the following:

Section 333 Exemption

Application Template


  • Your name and mailing address


  • Summary of specific sections you seek exemption from and what exemption it is you seek. Also, how your request will benefit the public as a whole.


  • Specific section for which you seek exemption*
    • Extent and Reason of relief from this rule
    • Reason exemption will be safe

* Do this for every rule you seek exemption from. You can group rules together if they have similar information.


  • Summary of exemptions requested
  • Any additional information
  • Date and Signature

HIFLY PHOTOGRAPHY recommends seeking exemption from the requirements of 14 C.F.R §§ 61.113(a) & (b), 91.7(a), 91.119 (c), 91.121, 91.151(b), 91.405(a), 91.407(a)(1), 91.409(a)(1) & (a)(2), and 91.417(a) & (b), to operate an Unmanned Aircraft System pursuant to Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA).

Instructions on submitting your exemption request can be found here: How To Submit Your Exemption Request

How do I get my Pilot’s License?

Drone pilots must hold either an airline transport, commercial, private, recreational, or sport pilot certificate. There are many ways to get a valid Pilot’s License, all of which involve different time and economic involvement. After much research, however, we ran across an article that suggests the cheapest and quickest solution to this problem is a ballooning license. For under $5000 and requiring less than a month of training, a ballooning license fulfills the requirements by the FAA.

For more information on satisfying FAA regulations in this manner see: Exemption 333: Ballooning License

How do I register my drone?

As of December 21st 2015 the FAA has introduced a system to register UAS.

For more information on registration refer to https://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/