Donald E. Smith has built drones for years in his Dayton workshop, but he is so tired of waiting on the Federal Aviation Administration to spell out rules for users of unmanned aerial vehicles he is closing the doors on his business Oct. 1.
“I certainly, at this point and time, consider the FAA to be more obstructive than anything else,” said Smith, 69, who set up the company, UA Vision, in hopes of making commercial sales. “So I think I’m done. It’s as simple as that.”
Smith’s frustration mirrors that of other commercial operators who say the FAA is hindering the development of a burgeoning industry ready to take flight. This frustration is contrasted by booming sales to hobbyists, who don’t face the same restrictions and can fly their unmanned aircraft more freely.
“I’m the hottest thing in town right now,” said Jason “Jay” Day, 40, of Washington Twp., who operates Dayton Drones and displays his array of drones — some fitting in the palm of a hand — every weekend at Trader’s World in Lebanon. “There’s a ton of response on it. Everybody’s wanting to fly.”
Drone advocates say sales can’t truly take off until the FAA approves rules allowing businesses to fly drones for commercial purposes.
The FAA has declared a drone flight that is not for hobby or recreation requires an FAA-certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and the agency’s operating approval. The federal agency has allowed two instances that met that standard and both were in the Arctic.
Congress has directed the FAA to integrate drones into civilian manned airspace one year from now, but many observers don’t expect that deadline will be met. The federal agency chose six drone test sites last year to begin integrating drones into civilian airspace, but snubbed Ohio’s and Indiana’s joint proposal.
Companies in industries from film making to power line inspections have asked the FAA for a total of at least 34 exemptions to use the technology commercially.
“It’s definitely kept it grounded,” said Richard E. Efford, Aerospace Industries Association of America assistant vice president of legislative affairs in Arlington, Va. “Without rules, except for these special exemptions, it’s essentially prevented the industry from getting started.”
Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs, said the coalition is concerned about any job losses in the region, such as at UA Vision, where Smith is laying off the last of his three employees. “Up until now, many companies are hanging on in the hopes the FAA will issue regulations that will allow the UAS industry to move forward,” Gessel said.
The FAA expects to publish the proposed rule for small unmanned aircraft, or those weighing less than 55 pounds, later this year, agency spokesman Les Dorr said in an email.
In the interim, the agency continues to move on the congressional mandate, he added.
“Our challenge is to integrate unmanned aircraft into the busiest, most complex airspace in the world,” the FAA said in a statement. “Introduction of unmanned aircraft into America’s airspace must take place incrementally and with the interest of safety first.”
‘We’re ready to go’
Woolpert Inc. of Beavercreek is one of the companies that asked for an exemption to fly a drone commercially.
The long-time survey mapmaker sees the company’s drone as a cheaper and quicker alternative to its fleet of multi-million dollar aircraft, said Jeff Lovin, Woolpert senior vice president and director of geospatial services.
“It fills a nice niche for smaller problems,” he said. “Obviously, the larger aircraft, the sensors that are in those are very expensive. So there’s a certain project size that we’re not able to cost effectively map with an airplane.”
The drone costs $100,000. Meanwhile, the company’s twin-engine aircraft have a price tag between $2 million to $3 million apiece. A company website said the drone typically flies at 250 feet to 500 feet in altitude and snaps photos with a resolution of less than a centimeter.
Woolpert has partnered with Sinclair Community College to test fly the drone, an Altavian Nova Block III. Government agencies or colleges, such as Sinclair and the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, may fly UAVs within restricted conditions with the FAA’s permission under a certificate of authorization.
“We’re ironed out, we’re ready to go,” Lovin said. “All we need is a green light and we can put this thing to use for commercial business.”
A survey of nearly 300 respondents, mostly business owners, this year found 71 percent said the rules on UAV operations were unclear and half said they were very unclear, according to Colin Snow, a Silicon Valley drone analyst in California. Under favorable rules, the survey found 65 percent of respondents indicated they would start a business immediately.
Even so, the technology has two important hurdles to gain public acceptance: Concerns about safety and privacy. Small UAVs typically weigh less than 55 pounds and fly below 400 feet in altitude.
Emergency personnel have reported unwanted encounters with drones on occasion.
Last month, a drone delayed a CareFlight helicopter carrying a patient from landing at Miami Valley Hospital. A UAV operator was reportedly taking photos of the Montgomery County Fairgrounds across the street from the landing zone. FAA regulations prohibit a drone flying within 400 feet of a hospital.
In April, a CareFlight helicopter was delayed in landing at a crash site in Moorefield Twp. because of a drone, leading to the arrest of the operator.
Snapshot from above
Dayton photographer Andy Snow stands on the side of a riverbank in Deeds Point MetroPark, piloting a small unmanned aerial vehicle equipped with a camera. The drone flies over the water along the downtown Dayton skyline.
He shoots photos using the drone “for fun,” just as he said he did in the locally produced music video “Where the Rivers Meet,” posted on You Tube.
Snow would like to make a business out of drone photography from the air, but can’t yet because of the current restrictions.
“I would like to be able to actually bill clients for the use of the drone in photography and video,” said Snow, 64.
Snow said he supports licensing, training and safety procedures.
“I think in dense populated areas like cities … there has to be restrictions, there have to be controls, there has to be better technology,” he said. “I think all those things are going to happen.”
FAA rules challenged
The FAA faces lawsuits in federal court filed by commercial drone advocates, research universities and model hobbyists who have pushed back against what they see as the FAA imposing too restrictive rules on hobbyists.
In an email last month, the FAA’s Dorr said the rules announced in June of this year were imposed “after recent incidents involving the reckless use of unmanned model aircraft near airports and large crowds of people.”
The updated rules came months after an administrative judge ruled the FAA did not have the power to fine a model aircraft user who flew a small UAV to film an advertisement over a university medical center in Virginia, reports show. The FAA has appealed the ruling.
The FAA’s rules on model aircraft were an interpretation of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Dorr said. The updated rules say model aircraft must not interfere with manned aircraft, must remain within sight of the operator, and can only fly as a hobby or for recreation. The rules also say model aircraft owners flying within five miles of an airport must notify the airport operator and air traffic control tower.
Brendan M. Schulman, a New York lawyer specializing in drone law, filed three separate lawsuits representing clients fighting the new rules. Four clients represented commercial use of drones, the second lawsuit involved the the Academy of Model Aeronautics vs. the FAA, and the third the Council on Government Regulations, representing university researchers.
Schulman said the rules appear to be an attempt to reinstate a 2007 policy the FAA imposed on small drones, a policy he said doesn’t have the authority of a federal regulation.
In a July letter to the FAA, the university researchers said the rules were overly broad and could inadvertently have “serious and severely detrimental impacts on education and research in the United States.”
The Academy of Model Aeronautics had documented six fatalities involving model aircraft in the nation’s history, the researchers noted.
“It is difficult to identify any other high-value activity that occurs in the outdoor airspace and has such an extraordinary safety record,” they wrote. “Even baseballs are statistically more deadly. Some of today’s model aircraft are so small and safe that they can even be flown indoors around people and furniture.”
Misuse of model aircraft near airfields should be handled through civil and criminal court proceedings, the letter said.
Schulman said as the legal battle rages, other countries have outpaced the United States in drone development.
“I think it’s just very dismaying … that in the country that’s the birthplace of aviation that we are so far behind in terms of a framework for this technology and also in terms of government leadership,” he said.
‘Don’t take it from us’
Day said the FAA shouldn’t overly restrict use of UAVs.
“I think that the FAA has overstepped their boundaries because they’re not supposed to even mess with us … below 400 feet and most of us abide by those laws,” he said. “They have no right to be telling us not to fly. What the FAA does tell is they tell me if I want to fill up a big balloon of hot air, I’m allowed to float all over the United States. They tell me if I want to strap a big fan on my back and go gliding I can, but with GPS and satellites I can’t have a precision flight to do something that’s much safer.”
Day said some restrictions are necessary so that drone operators act responsibly.
“If there’s a fire or wreck, the last thing they (first responders) need is you buzzing around their heads,” he said. “If somebody is out sunbathing and you’re over their property and you’re not supposed to be, you deserve to go to jail. Pass restrictions on it, but don’t take it from us.”
Day, who said he has flown UAVs over a Georgia island resort and a rock concert, said operating a UAV takes common sense.
“If you’ve never flown before, don’t fly around people, never fly over people, never fly over crowds, never fly over sporting events,” he said. “Even me being a professional, I’ll fly up next to something and look down, but I’ll never fly over an event.”
Regional economic development leaders have targeted growing the UAV industry in southwest Ohio and have touted its assets.
The Ohio UAS Conference in downtown Dayton last month attracted more than 700 attendees and 73 vendors, both records for the growing three-year-old gathering. Gessel said the Dayton Development Coalition actively recruits aerospace companies and promotes Ohio as the future of the UAS industry.
The Wright-Patterson Air Force Base headquartered Air Force Research Laboratory is considered a national leader in trying to solve the technological hurdle of detect and avoid technology, and Springfield is home to the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center and Test Complex, among some of the assets officials have touted.
Development efforts stumbled in one area. NASA canceled a planned $1.5 million sense and avoidance drone contest, organized with the Development Projects Inc., a subsidiary of the Dayton Development Coalition. The contest was set to take off this week at Camp Atterbury, Ind. The space agency has offered few details for the decision, but one Texas competitor said it appeared NASA wasn’t prepared to launch the contest. A rescheduled launch date has not been announced.
Gessel said the long-term outlook for drones remains strong and that the uncertainty over the regulations will be short-lived.
“Companies with deep pockets—for example Google and Amazon—are stepping up their investments in the technology. So we still see enormous opportunity for the Dayton region,” he said.
Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Virginia-based Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, compared the arrival of drones to the automobile, computer and the Internet.
“This is a technology that’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s only a question of when.”
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