The Federal Aviation Administration this week granted exemptions for the use of drones by a real estate firm in Arizona and a crop monitoring company in Washington state, further loosening the agency’s strict ban on the commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

The exemption granted to Douglas Trudeau of Tierra Antigua Realty in Tuscon, Ariz., marks the first time the FAA has permitted a real estate company to use drones to photograph houses for sale.  Trudeau applied to use a Phantom 2 Vision + quadcopter, with a maximum gross weight of about 3 pounds, for real estate photography.  Trudeau plans to attach a GoPro 3+ camera to the drone.

The FAA also granted an exemption to Advanced Aviation Solutions in Spokane, Wash., which plans to use a 1.5-pound fixed-wing eBee Ag drone, equipped with a still camera, to make photographic measurements of farm fields and determine the health of crops.

The FAA placed a number of conditions on use of the drones, including that each operation must have a pilot and an observer, and the pilot must have at least an FAA private pilot certificate and a current medical certificate.  Significantly, the FAA did not require a commercial pilot certificate, finding that the additional skills necessary to obtain a commercial certificate “would not correlate to the airmanship skills necessary” for the proposed drone operations.  The drone must also remain within the line of sight at all times.

Including this week’s exemptions, the FAA has now granted 14 drone use exemptions to 13 companies.  Exemptions have been awarded to film and production companies and for aerial surveying, monitoring construction sites, and inspecting oil rigs.  But the agency has many more exemption applications that it has not yet acted on.  The FAA stated that as of January 6, 2015, it has received 214 requests for exemptions from commercial entities, a number that has been continually increasing.  The significant backlog shows the challenges that are inherent in the FAA’s current approach of authorizing commercial drone operations on an individualized basis.  Moreover, the authorizations issued by the FAA could easily be converted into a generally applicable rule that would have broad benefit to the many businesses interested in using drones commercially.  It’s likely that the FAA will do something just like that when it eventually issues its proposed rules for drones.

Indeed, the FAA has been under pressure to move more swiftly in integrating UAS into the national airspace.  At a hearing of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure last month, members urged the FAA to “move forward to ensure progress and competitiveness” but not “at the expense of safety.”

The FAA was expected to release a notice of proposed rulemaking on the use of small UAS (those under 55 pounds) by the end of last year, but the agency has still not taken that critical first step toward reaching a final set of regulations.  At the current pace, a final rule on small commercial UAS use may not come until late 2016 or early 2017, according to testimony from Gerald Dillingham of the GAO at last month’s House hearing.