Federal drone regulations are still up in the air, but hundreds of lucky organizations can start flying the devices now because they nabbed exemptions from the Federal Aviation Administration.

So who's getting all of these exemptions?

Startups and small businesses, mostly. They've scooped up 80 percent of the first 500 exemptions the FAA granted unmanned aircraft system--i.e. drone--operators since it began offering exemptions last year, according to a report by the non-profit Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Roughly one-third of these operators are involved in real estate, followed by aerial surveying, aerial photography, agriculture, and construction.

“The flood of commercial exemption requests to the FAA shows that a mature UAS commercial market is waiting to be unleashed,” reads the executive summary of the report, urging the FAA to finalize regulations.

Until then, the five states below, which top the list for the highest number of exemptions offered, are already vying to become the drone capital of the country:


California, home of Berkeley-based drone manufacturer 3D Robotics and a number of other companies competing with DJI of China, has 70 of the first 500 operator exemptions extended by the FAA.

You might think that with housing prices climbing as they are in Silicon Valley, real estate would be fueling the boom. That industry is up there, but film and television beats it out for drone exemptions. Film and television drone operators scored 23 of those exemptions, and real estate 15. Florida and New York trail behind with seven and five film and television exemptions, respectively, according to the report.


Texas businesses are finding applications ranging from safety inspections to energy industry mapping and monitoring, reports the Houston Chronicle. The state is home to 46 of the first 500 FAA-exempted operators.

Cloud9Drones co-founder Jacob Rachniowski told the Chronicle the drone industry is “busting loose.” Aerial photography leads the way in the state with 16 of the exemptions, followed by real estate with 15.


Florida has 40 of the first operators with FAA exemptions, half of them in the real estate industry, followed by 10 in aerial photography. In the face of FAA drone regulation limbo, the state has stepped in with a law prohibiting drone surveillance. The law went into effect in July and exempts business uses of drones for non-surveillance purposes, according to the Insurance Journal. Careful how you use your devices, photographers.


Yet again, real estate and aerial photography can be seen leading the way in FAA exemptions for drone operators. In Illinois, where operators took 18 of the first exemptions, each industry claims seven of those approvals. Illinois State Police are among those approved for use of drones, or unmanned aircraft, as the state police prefer to say

“The ability to obtain accurate measurements and clear images from aerial photographs will significantly reduce the amount of time highways are closed during the initial investigation of major traffic crashes,” a state police statement gave as reasons for seeking to use what-shall-not-be-called-drones.


Phoenix Business Journal noted that the Grand Canyon state does pretty well for its relatively small population. With 17 of the first FAA-approved operators, Arizona beats out the more-peopled states of New York, New Jersey, Washington, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Ohio, the Journal notes. Maybe it’s the beautiful desert landscape inspiring early adoption of the flying devices often used for aerial photography? More likely, it’s forward-looking real estate agents. Of the exempted operators covered in the report, seven use drones for real estate. Agriculture is the next biggest arena in the state, with six of the first exempted operators.