At this writing, the FAA has granted over 5,000 Section 333 Exemptions, and over 4,000 petitions sit in a queue, awaiting the FAA’s “careful inspection,” which amount to little more than “rubber stamping.” After all, the only requirements for being granted a 333 is that you submit the proper paperwork and have a pulse. If you are currently awaiting your grant, you’ll get it — eventually. It takes months and months but everyone is granted one. Remember, I even got one for a paper airplane.
However, once you receive your grant, will you be able to use it? Remember, the grantee can be anyone (or any company). But the person who actually flies the drone must be a licensed manned aircraft pilot, and they must be current. Does this describe you? If so, you yourself may legally fly commercially under your 333. If not, you must find (and presumably pay) a licensed and current manned aircraft pilot to fly your drone for you.
Even then, you’ll likely not benefit from it, since the myriad of onerous conditions that accompany 333s make it completely impractical — indeed nearly impossible — to operate a drone commercially. Even the FAA’s own NPRM suggests that many of the 333 conditions are entirely unnecessary. Its proposed Part 107 presents far fewer barriers to fly commercially. Unlike a 333, Part 107 proposes no pilot license or medical certificate requirement, no spotter requirement, no 500 buffer from any structure requirement and no NOTAM requirement.
Moreover, despite its claim of illegality, the FAA has never attempted to enforce against anyone solely for operating a drone commercially without a 333. Jason Koebler of Motherboard FOIA’ed all of the FAA’s enforcement actions, and they reveal the agency has never initiated a single enforcement action based solely upon commercial operation. Instead each was based on an alleged violation of some existing FAR, mostly FAR 91.13 (careless/reckless operation). Why isn’t the FAA enforcing against something it claims is illegal? They know there is no legal basis for that claim, and that they will lose.
So why bother getting a 333 now? You’re better off waiting until Part 107 is final. It might not be perfect, but it’s far better than a 333, and it’s likely to become final well before you ever see your 333 granted. In the interim, it appears that as long as you operate safely and responsibly — meaning don’t violate FAR 91.13 — you may fly for pleasure or for profit without the threat of FAA enforcement action.
As always, nothing I write is intended to be, and should not be considered legal advice.