Phoenix Air of Cartersville gets FAA approval for drones

Phoenix Air, which was thrust into the national spotlight last year as it transported Ebola patients in specially-equipped planes, is now entering another high-profile line of business.

The Cartersville-based air charter company has gained federal approval to operate unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones. The Federal Aviation Administration granted the company a two-year exemption and waiver to operate drones for filmmaking, patrolling, aerial inspection and agriculture.

“We anticipate this being a good portion of our growth plans,” said Will Lovett, managing director of unmanned systems for Phoenix Air.

The company’s approval for drone use is the second granted by the FAA to a Georgia firm this week. Norcross-based Vision Services Group has received an exemption for the use of drones in agriculture and forestry.

As Phoenix Air prepares to ramp up the new services in the next few weeks, Lovett said it is accepting job applications for unmanned systems operators.

Steve Justice, director of Georgia’s Center of Innovation for Aerospace, said Phoenix Air has “a great amount of experience in manned aviation, and they’re going to bring that to the unmanned area.”

Lovett said the company plans to work with filmmakers in Georgia to provide equipment and crews to use drones in the movie business.

“The use of unmanned aircraft is becoming more and more prevalent in many different kinds of films,” Justice said. The state’s film credits encourage companies to use Georgia-based services, he said, opening up opportunity for Phoenix Air. “I think that’s an area you’ll see expand pretty rapidly.”

Phoenix Air has also leased a 10-acre Bartow County site formerly used by remote control airplane users, which the company now plans to use for training and demonstrations of drones.

Lovett said using drones to inspect a cell tower would avoid the hazard of having to climb it. “There’s a safety perspective that we believe is ideal for the industry,” he said.

The Small UAV Coalition supported Phoenix Air’s petition for the FAA’s approval, while the Air Line Pilots Association union and the National Agricultural Aviation Association, which represents crop duster operators, opposed it and raised safety concerns.