Drones’ commercial uses eyed by Georgia firms

One of the hottest viral videos over the July 4th weekend was taken by a camera-equipped drone that flew through exploding fireworks.

Unmanned aircraft may still be most associated with weapons of war, but that’s quickly changing — and not just because of cool fireworks videos.

Businesses are eying civilian drones’ peaceful uses. And a handful of Georgia companies and colleges already are at work on ways to turn them into tools of commerce.

Possible commercial roles range from taking property shots for real estate listings to surveying crops for farmers. Amazon.com made headlines late last year by suggesting it might deploy a drone delivery fleet.

Commercial drone use is still generally illegal, though hobbyist and some research flights are allowed. The federal government is working on regulations to allow broader use, though. At the same time, debate is building over privacy concerns in a future world of camera-equipped drones overhead, prompting some public officials to call for privacy protections.

Here’s a survey of the landscape — and Georgia’s place in it — as commercial drones move toward reality:

Defining ‘drone’

For starters, civilian drones can be a far cry from the big, menacing versions used by the military. While size varies depending on use, many are more like the little remote-controlled aircraft hobbyists have flown for decades, except with much better technology. Small “quadcopters,” which can hover and are ideal for shooting video, already are popular with hobbyists.

The FAA says its upcoming rules for small commercial drones will apply to unmanned aircraft lighter than about 55 pounds. (The U.S. military’s Predator drone weighs more than 1,000.)

Despite the differences, the term drone has become attached to both military and civilian unmanned aircraft.

A few local companies have worked for the government on drone projects, and that business stands to grow if private business uses emerge.

Area-I, a Kennesaw firm with about 10 employees, has developed an unmanned aircraft that looks like a small-scale version of a Boeing 737. Developed with NASA funding and known as PTERA, the vehicle weighs in at less than 300 pounds and is used to test technology for manned aircraft.

Other firms in the game include Guided Systems Technologies, of Stockbridge, which makes unmanned helicopters for military use and has participated in tests for other uses. Adaptive Flight, in Marietta, makes autopilot systems and customized unmanned helicopters for law enforcement.

Academic connections

The government has granted 35 waivers that currently allow drone use in research by Georgia universities or university partnerships.

Georgia Tech’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Research Facility test-flies a variety of aircraft at sites around the state, and some of the state’s entrepreneurs in the field trace their interest to work at Tech.

Eric Johnson, who heads the UAV Research Facility at Georgia Tech, also leads a team of universities from across the country to compete for a federal designation as an FAA Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. That could generate research funding for a decade.

Last year, Georgia failed to land a spot on a list of unmanned aircraft test sites named by the FAA, and a Tech win for the designation would ease that blow.

“It’s very important for us … to go and win this so that we have a leading role over the next ten years,” said Steve Justice, director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Aerospace.

How much funding the team could get for research is yet to be seen, but Johnson hopes it could total as much as $40 million over 10 years. Proposals are due in September and a decision from the FAA is expected early next year.

The FAA wants research on everything from how air traffic control will work for unmanned aircraft to “detect and avoid” technology to prevent collisions. It also wants the work to help it determine what kind of training requirements will be necessary for people who control unmanned aircraft.

Flying over crops, cars, crooks

Justice has spent the last few years working to help develop and prepare local businesses and universities for the potential of a commercial drone industry.

“We are flying jet-powered UAVs and other vehicles and doing a lot of good research,” such as in agricultural uses, Justice said. “I think we’re being regarded as one of the leaders in this area among the U.S. states.”

In Georgia, one of the biggest potential customers for commercially-used drones is expected to be farmers to scan crops for disease or other problems. A special camera on the drone would be able to detect plant diseases — a job that now requires painstaking human inspection.

After test flying over corn, cotton and peanut fields with Guided Systems in South Georgia last summer, Justice said plans are for an exhibit in October at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie to educate farmers and the agricultural sector, and possibly some demonstration flights.

The Georgia Department of Transportation funded a $75,000 study completed this year by Georgia Tech researchers to count vehicles on the highway or help with accident investigations. But a deeper cost-benefit analysis was deemed premature, and whether such a use will ever emerge remains to be seen.

Another potential customer for drones: Georgia’s growing TV and film industry, where small flying cameras could be used to get footage that couldn’t be captured through other means.

“Over the next three to five years, everybody in Georgia is going to want to have one, whether it’s the sheriff or the state patrol,” said state Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell.

Privacy concerns

The prospect of more widespread use of drones prompted Geisinger to propose legislation last winter to protect privacy by prohibiting “the capturing of certain images by unmanned aircraft” and prohibiting the distribution or use of the images.

Thirteen other states already have laws to protect privacy from surveillance drones, such as by requiring law enforcement to get a probable cause warrant before using a drone in an investigation.

Georgia’s legislation came late in the session and did not pass, but he expects to try again this winter.

Atlanta city councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr. last week introduced a resolution urging state legislators to protect residents from law enforcement use of drones for “unrestricted, arbitrary surveillance” or other uses that threaten privacy or constitutional rights.

Geisinger’s first bill had exemptions for a range of uses, from university research to military, utility and certain law enforcement uses, highway accident investigations, firefighting, rescues and real estate brokers. He said he plans to add the movie and TV industry to a redraft of the bill. The aim would be to make it illegal for someone to use a drone to take images of people or private property for the purpose of surveillance, or to distribute the images.

“We’re not going to prevent anybody from using it legitimately,” Geisinger said.

Hobbyists and safety

There are already plenty of small unmanned quadcopters that cost less than $1,000 being operated by hobbyists and others.

“You’re seeing new people come into the hobbyist arena,” Justice said. That also means that “there’s just a lot of people who aren’t aware of the [safety] rules” as traditional remote control aircraft hobbyists are, he said.

In response to “recent incidents involving the reckless use of unmanned model aircraft near airports and involving large crowds of people,” the FAA last month issued a notice providing guidance to model aircraft operators on how to fly safely. In one recent case, a New York City police helicopter almost collided with a hobbyist drone, according to one report. And the FAA is looking into how some fireworks videos have been shot, out of concern that spectators’ safety could have been compromised.

Atlanta Hobby president Cliff Whitney worries that the FAA is overstepping its authority into regulation of model aircraft and that many safety and privacy issues raised are “fear-mongering.” Whitney’s shop in Cumming sells small unmanned aircraft.

DeKalb-Peachtree Airport director Mike Van Wie said any hobbyist should seek permission to operate within five miles of an airport, and he has granted a couple of requests.

He said he’s concerned about accountability among less responsible operators. If a quadcopter collides with a plane and takes it down, “Am I going to fess up and say ‘Yes, it was mine,’ or am I going to get in my car and go home?” Van Wie said. “Frankly, it scares me a little bit.”