Drone firms see big boost from FAA rules on use

Early adopters hoping for airborne delivery of pizzas or Amazon packages may have been disappointed by the recent federal proposal to regulate commercial use of drone aircraft.

But while those rules won’t enable drone deliveries anytime soon, they could lead to an explosion of uses by everyone from farmers to movie producers — and in the process boost Georgia’s roster of tech firms that build, sell or operate drones.

Some say those firms are poised to become the foundation of a new niche in the state’s aerospace industry.

The potential of the unmanned aircraft industry for Georgia’s economy is “hundreds of jobs,” said Steve Justice, executive director of the state Center of Innovation for Aerospace.

“This is a new area… People will take these vehicles, they will do things with them that we never imagined today and be successful with them.”

A small coterie of businesses has already formed in metro Atlanta, aiming to harness drone technology for everything from agriculture and forestry to filming and pipeline inspections.

The proposed Federal Aviation Administration rule for small drones would not require a full private pilot or commercial pilot license to operate a small unmanned aircraft. It has been mostly welcomed by those who want to see the industry grow.

“What that’s going to do is open up the opportunity to a greater number of entrepreneurs,” said Ben Worley, chief operating officer of VSG Unmanned, based in Norcross.

But Worley is disappointed by some provisions in the FAA rule such as limits on night flying, saying that some operations like aerial application of pesticides are better done at night.

The FAA rule also would require line-of-sight operations, effectively shutting the door on remote-control delivery. Sandy Springs-based UPS, which some had speculated might someday use drones, did not comment last week.

The rule is focused on safety and leaves other issue unresolved, including how to prevent privacy intrusions from drones overhead. Another question that remains is how to keep the skies safe amid an explosion of hobbyist drone flying — which would not be covered by regulation of commercial drones.

Promising framework

But for now, many businesses see promise in the FAA’s long-awaited framework, and they are closely critiquing the proposal.

The FAA proposed rule for commercial drones under 55 pounds would limit them to daylight operations within sight of an operator, making them a far different type of machine than the big military drones that are flown from remote locations that can be thousands of miles away.

Though operators wouldn’t have to be pilots, they’d need to be certified and pass an aeronautical knowledge test every two years. The commercial drone could not fly over people not involved in the operation, could go no faster than 100 mph and no higher than 500 feet and could not operate near an airport without air traffic control permission.

Under the rule, commercial drone operations in metro Atlanta are expected to be limited to industrial locations and private property such as for real estate listings, construction sites and inspections of buildings, smokestacks and cell towers, according to Justice and Worley.

“You won’t necessarily see them flying over sports stadiums because that’s over the public,” Justice said, adding they’ll more likely be used on industrial sites, over farms and other places not in general public areas.

The FAA will take and review public comment before issuing the final rule, likely in 18 to 24 months.

Meanwhile, two companies — Phoenix Air in Cartersville and VSG Unmanned — are awaiting exemptions from the FAA for their own limited commercial operations that could begin in the interim. And Georgia Tech is leading a team competing for the designation as a Center of Excellence for unmanned aircraft systems.

Businesses will do “a lot of experimentation” to determine how companies can sell drone services, Justice said. “Some business models will work, some business models won’t. There’s going to be a weeding out process…. It’s going to be a pretty exciting time.”

He doesn’t expect any overnight explosion of job creation in the drone business.

Middle Georgia State College plans to launch webinars and training classes this fall for unmanned aircraft operators, and instructor Chad Dennis said the rules may “stimulate a lot of interest” in the classes.

“Ultimately, I see this as a positive step forward,” said Dennis, who is also the unmanned aerial systems program coordinator for the state Center of Innovation for Aerospace.

Hobbyists not covered

The FAA rule does not aim to regulate hobbyists of the sort who have garnered headlines for drone mishaps, such as the crash of a small drone on the White House lawn in January.

There are already rules against operating aircraft of any sort recklessly, said Eric Johnson, associate professor of avionics integration at Georgia Tech.

But, “at least this puts a stake in the ground on what is reckless behavior, more so than we have now.” Johnson said.

The FAA rule also does not address privacy protections or regulate government use of drones. Instead, the White House issued a memorandum to begin a process to put limits on federal use of drones in domestic airspace and several bills proposed in the Georgia state legislature aim to address some of the privacy concerns.

They include one bill prohibiting manned and unmanned aircraft from operating above private property for surveillance without a search warrant or permission of the property owner, and another outlining legal and illegal uses of unmanned aircraft with the aim of protecting privacy.

Dennis said he is concerned that some of the measures could hinder research and development and Georgia’s ability to compete with other states in developing the industry. The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts the unmanned aircraft industry could generate 2,880 jobs in the state by 2025.

“There’s a lot of different factors here,” Justice said, with different states taking different approaches to privacy protections. “That too over the next two years will be interesting to watch and see what’s successful and what’s not.”

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