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Fargo, N.D. — As thousands of commercial drones take to the skies under new Federal Aviation Administration rules, some small operators are pursuing a coveted exemption that would allow them to fly their drones where they can’t be seen by the pilot.

The companies who want them say the so-called line-of-sight exemptions are essential to someday use drones for such tasks as cleanup and repair after storm damage and monitoring widespread crop conditions.

But thus far, the FAA has only given exemptions to three companies that participated in a year-long FAA pilot program: CNN, BNSF Railway and the drone data company PrecisionHawk.

Matt Dunlevy, whose Grand Forks-based SkySkopes is pursuing an exemption to help provide services such as infrastructure inspections. Expanding the waiver program “is the silver bullet that’s really going to unlock the potential in our industry,” he said.

PrecisionHawk, which is based in Raleigh, North Carolina, represents customers in the agriculture, mining, forestry, insurance and telecommunications industries.

“First and foremost, safety is the top priority,” said Lia Riech, PrecisionHawk’s vice president of marketing. “We also want to continue pushing the boundaries. Obviously it’s important for us to cover the acreage that is representative of our clients.”

The FAA expects there will be 600,000 commercial drone aircraft operating in the U.S. within the year.

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