FAA approves Dayton firm to fly commerical drones

3D Aerial Solutions LLC expects to begin flying a mini-drone over Ohio farms this spring to help farmers monitor the health of their crops, said Brandon M. Youngblood, chief operating officer and a former military drone operator.

The company is the second Dayton area firm to gain the FAA’s permission to fly drones commercially, and one of less than 50 granted the special permission since last fall across the country. In December, Woolpert Inc. based in Beavercreek received a go-ahead to fly aerial surveying and mapping missions.

Youngblood said his company is the first in Ohio to win federal approval to fly specifically over farms on unmanned precision agriculture flights. “As far as competition, there is none for us because we’re the only ones with the (waiver),” he said.

3D Aerial Solutions will fly the SenseFly eBee Mini Drone, a 1.5 pound unmanned aerial vehicle that costs about $30,000.

The company has one of the drones but may purchase more depending on demand for its photographic services, he said. The data could tell farmers which crops in a field need more fertilizer or pesticides and help predict yields, among other uses, he said. It may expand operations to Iowa, he said.

The firm won an exemption under what’s known as the FAA’s Section 333 that allows commercial use of drones in the national air space, without partnering with a college, university or government agency, and before rules on small drones take effect.

The next step is to ask the FAA to give a certificate of authorization to fly over certain areas, Youngblood said. Final approval may take 60 to 90 days more.

“It’s just trying to get everything in place and get moving,” he said.

The company has a certificate of authorization with Wright State Research Institute to fly the mini-drone at Wilmington Air Park.

The FAA, meanwhile, has drafted proposed rules on flying small unmanned aerial vehicles commercially in the nation’s airspace. The regulations would apply to drones less than 55 pounds and fly below 500 feet. The rules are under public review and may be in place within two years.

Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at Virginia-based Teal Group, said the FAA waiver to companies is “extremely important” to jump start the unmanned aerial systems industry.

“It enables the FAA to allow companies to begin to use these systems without having the final rules in place,” he said. And as a company that’s “one of the early entrants it certainly gives you an advantage,” he said.

Companies aren’t the only users of the waivers. Sinclair Community College has asked the FAA for one at Wilmington Air Park to partner with commercial firms to explore sensor integration and sense and avoidance technologies in UAS, said Andrew D. Shepherd, director of the Dayton college’s UAS program.

Sinclair has focused student training in three areas where the use of drones is projected to grow in Ohio: precision agriculture, first responders and geospatial mapping, said Deborah Norris, Sinclair vice president of workforce development and corporate services.

“We do know that students in our program today are getting jobs with local companies,” she said.

In March 2013, an Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International study projected the drone industry would create 100,000 jobs and have an $82 billion economic impact in the United States by 2025 with the integration of UAVs into the national air space. In Ohio, the study predicted 2,700 new jobs and a $2.1 billion economic impact within a decade.

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