Posted September 21, 2015 by Casey McCallister

Camera drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have been booming in popularity for some time now. Unfortunately, the laws and rules for flying them have been slow to keep up. An Internet search for ‘drone laws’ yields an endless amount of conflicting information

In 2015, SmartShoot has seen a huge increase in aerial projects posted. We are working hard to recruit qualified UAV artists to perform these jobs safely and legally. To date, we have built one of the biggest community of 333-exempt legal drone pilots on the Internet.

Building this community has brought up a lot of questions of what exactly is a legal UAV pilot? What are the rules if you want to take your camera to the sky? Admittedly, it can be difficult to interpret the laws and rules from the FAA, so here are the most important steps you need to know before taking off:

(We should note that this information is not legal advice, so please conduct a lawyer prior to flying or submitting for your exemption.)

What is a 333 Exemption?

If you live in the United States and make income flying a UAV, you are currently required by the FAA to have a 333 exemption. This exemption means that the FAA has determined that you are a safe and reliable pilot, granting you permission to fly commercially. The FAA makes these exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

Straight from the FAA:

The Section 333 Exemption process provides operators who wish to pursue safe and legal entry into the NAS a competitive advantage in the UAS marketplace, thus discouraging illegal operations and improving safety. It is anticipated that this activity will result in significant economic benefits, and the FAA Administrator has identified this as a high priority project to address demand for civil operation of UAS for commercial purposes.

Do I need a 333 exemption?

Taking a drone to the sky to photograph or film for any commercial reason requires a 333 exemption from the FAA. Otherwise, you are considered a hobbyist and performing jobs for pay is in violation of the law.

How do I file 333 paperwork?

To file a 333 exemption, you will need to submit the following to the FAA:

  • Your name, mailing address, email address, and phone number.
  • The extent and reason that you are seeking an exemption.
  • How your business and your UAV will benefit the public.
  • Steps that you take to fly your UAV safely including safe areas that you most frequently fly.
  • If you wish to fly outside of the United States.
  • Any other information that is relevant to the FAA for granting an exemption. More details are always better.

Does it cost money to file a 333 exemption?

There is no fee for applying for or obtaining a 333 exemption, however, although it is not necessary, many who apply will do so through a law firm and this service charges a fee. Many law firms are getting into the drone industry and a Google search turns up many firms specializing in requesting 333 exemptions.

How long does it take to process a 333 exemption?

Officially, the FAA says that it can take 120 days to process an exemption, but most are being accepted about 90 days from the date filed. Exemptions, however, are piling up and a backlog is likely happening. The processing time will likely increase as time moves forward.

What rules do I have to follow after obtaining my 333 exemption?

The list is long, but notable rules include:

  • keeping your UAV within site at all times even if you have a remote camera on board
  • UAVs should fly no higher than 400 feet
  • UAVs should be flown a sufficient distance from populated areas.
  • UAVs should only be flown during the daytime

Certain areas are off limits to flying UAVs, commercially or non-commercially. This no-fly zone map is a valuable resource for UAV pilots to know exactly where it is off limits to fly. Otherwise, common sense goes a long way. Do not fly over stadiums, schools, prisons, anywhere near airports, or over places where people congregate. When flying over buildings, it is best to notify all within the area of your plans and schedule.
No Fly Drone Zone

For what kind of jobs would a 333 exemption be best?

We see many kinds of requests coming through, but the most popular genre on SmartShoot is real estate photography. We also see many generic aerial photography and surveying jobs.

Do I need a pilot’s license to file a 333 exemption?

The person obtaining the 333 exemption for a company does not have to be a licensed pilot, however, whomever is piloting the UAV must be a certified pilot. This pilot can either be an employee of the exempt company or an independent contractor. Applying for the exemption doesn’t require a person on your team carrying a pilot’s license. You can still apply for a 333 under the assumption that your future pilots will have a pilot’s license.

Can a 333 exemption be revoked?

Yes, the FAA can revoke a 333 exemption for any reason at any time. Flying safely and responsibly will keep you off of their radar.

Where can I begin the application process?

You can begin requesting your 333 exemption here:

Aren’t all of these laws changing soon?

As you can probably see, legally flying a drone is not easy, and we are all looking forward to the day when these laws become more clear. The good news is the FAA has said that new rules are coming by June 2016. In the short term, however, there are more jobs than pilots to go around. To fill them, a 333 exemption is a necessity in order to legally participate in this fast growing industry.

SmartShoot has 333-exempt drone pilots in 39 states across the United States. We have jobs coming in daily and would love to have you on board as a SmartShoot pilot. If you’re 333-exempt, stop by and sign up here.

Should you have any questions, feel free email me directly at

About Casey McCallister

I am an adventure and outdoor lifestyle photographer from San Francisco and the growth hacker at SmartShoot. I enjoy traveling and spending time in nature.

Keep in touch: @caseymac

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