Co-founders Justin Miller, left, and Ben Brautigam of Airnest. The new app Airiest allows you to draw a flightpath with your finger and the drone flies on autopilot capturing video or still images.
A DJI Phathom III Pro drone operated by Co-founders Justin Miller and Ben Brautigam of Airnest flies over Riverview Park in early December. The new app Airiest allows you to draw a flightpath with your finger and the drone flies on autopilot capturing video or still images.
By Stephanie Ritenbaugh / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Once it lifted off the ground, the drone hovered and pivoted like a dragonfly. The camera locked on its target and the device spun and followed a graceful arc through the air, capturing a crisp, smooth panoramic video of the sunset at Allegheny Observatory.
The technology on display during a recent demo by State College-based Airnest is expected to affect numerous industries — farming, film, construction, public safety and energy. One study puts the economic impact of drones at $227.4 million by 2020 in Pennsylvania alone.
Yet there are hurdles for businesses that want to use drones as part of their operations, whether it’s self-employed photographers or behemoths like Amazon.com eyeing the aircraft for deliveries.
Drone flight demonstration from Airnest
Two of the three co-founders of Airnest, Justin Miller and Ben Brautigam, demonstrate flying a drone over the Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park.
For one thing, a commercial drone operator — the person actually flying the aircraft — has to have a pilot’s license under the current regulations. The company also must get an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration, since flying drones for commercial use is currently banned.
But the FAA is in the process of creating new regulations specifically for commercial users — the final rule is expected this spring — and that gives the growing industry hope that the skies will soon be friendlier to the opportunities they see on the horizon.
‘Black swan event’
How businesses can capitalize on drones is heavy on the mind of Micah Rosa, CEO of Shoutside Media in Allentown. The Drone Masters Club, which Mr. Rosa founded, is hosting a meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 28 for companies interested in using the technology. The event at AlphaLab Gear in East Liberty will feature an attorney from Downtown-based Saul Ewing LLP and include paperwork to apply for FAA exemptions.
“There’s a word for what’s happening. It’s called a ‘black swan event’ when something is this disruptive to the market. And the government can’t keep up,” Mr. Rosa said. “Drones are going to be ahead of legislation for a long time.” Popular Mechanics reported the FAA expected 1 million to be sold over the holiday season. That’s a lot of new aircraft to be sharing the skies.
Anything has a drone application, Mr. Rosa noted.
“Everyone thinks of real estate, but consider the oil and gas sector,” Mr. Rosa said. “It’s not about just taking pictures. You can make 3-D renderings of sites that normally would need a survey crew. A drone can do it faster, for less money and almost always more accurately. You can have a 3-D map of an oil field, from top to bottom, within one centimeter of accuracy.”
Drones could also replace humans in dangerous jobs. Think inspections for electrical towers.
“The liability of climbing a tower is huge,” said Justin Miller, who co-founded Airnest with Ben Brautigam and Sherwyn Saul. “There are only so many people willing to climb up a tower, and God bless them. But I’d rather send up a drone.”
Ban on commercial use
The federal government has banned the commercial use of drones, unless a business gets an exemption under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Businesses also must get a certificate of waiver or authorization, have an aircraft registered with the FAA, and have an operator with a pilot’s license.
For hobbyists, the rules are different because the FAA has considered them as part of the remote control aircraft lobby in place for decades, according to Tom McMahon, vice president, advocacy and public affairs, for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. In December, the FAA started requiring drones for recreational use to be registered.
Under the current rules, a commercial operator can’t fly the drone higher than 400 feet, can only fly during the day and can’t fly over people or beyond the line of sight.
Penalties can soar for breaking the rules.
In October, the FAA proposed a $1.9 million fine, the highest one yet, against SkyPan International Inc. of Chicago. The agency said SkyPan conducted 65 unauthorized operations over New York City and Chicago for aerial photography “in some of our most congested airspace and heavily populated cities, violating airspace regulations and various operating rules,” according to a statement.
New rules coming
As of Wednesday, 2,960 exemptions had been granted across the country, according to the FAA’s website.
Mr. McMahon said, “When you consider the demand and the number of companies that could use it, that’s not even scratching the surface of what the impact could be.”
Now, the FAA is reviewing regulations proposed in February 2015 that call for replacing the requirement for a traditional pilot’s license with a test and an unmanned aircraft operator certificate. The operator would have to be retested every two years.
The proposed rules also include keeping the craft in visual line of sight only; not operating over any persons not directly involved in the operation; maintaining daylight-only operations; keeping a maximum airspeed of 100 mph; and keeping a maximum altitude of 500 feet above ground level.
“If this interview happened about about a year ago, I would have been really unhappy — there was no pathway for commercial users,” Mr. Rosa said. “Now, it’s pretty standard. You apply for the exemptions and they’re available to the public, so you can make sure a pilot is approved. It’s not exactly as simple as a driver’s license, but there’s a pathway.”
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International released a 38-page report in 2013 on the economic impact of unmanned aircraft systems. It found that “precision agriculture and public safety are the most promising commercial and civil markets,” comprising about 90 percent of the known potential market for the technology.
Pennsylvania ranks 10th in the top 10 states to benefit in terms of job creation and additional revenue. The study estimates Pennsylvania and nine other states — California, Washington, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Connecticut, Kansas, Virginia and New York — will see $82 billion in total economic impact through 2025. It also predicts 100,000 new jobs will be created nationally, assuming there are favorable regulations for drones.
That includes the companies such as Shoutside Media that incorporate the use into its business or others such as Airnest that provide software. In Airnest’s case, it launched a Kickstarter campaign to develop its own drone but then decided to focus instead on developing software to help other companies use drones effectively when China’s DJI, the world’s largest drone manufacturer, released its unmanned aircraft. Airnest is now a development partner with Shenzhen-based DJI.
“It didn’t make sense for us to do the hardware when what people really want is the software,” said Mr. Brautigam at Airnest. The app allows users to create the drone’s flight path by sketching on the screen of an iPhone or iPad. It also displays no-fly zones and weather conditions.
Fly the friendly skies?
If the skies are to become more welcoming to commercial operators, the FAA’s role is critical.
“Perhaps the single most important aspect of this forecast is that the FAA develops new guidelines allowing the integration of [unmanned aircraft systems] in the nation’s airspace,” said the report from Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Dick Zhang, president and CEO of Larimer-based Identified Technologies, said the final rules can’t come soon enough.
“Broadly speaking, the industry is eagerly awaiting new regulations,” Mr. Zhang said.
His company launched about 2½ years ago in Philadelphia and moved to Pittsburgh. Identified Technologies has 18 employees after finishing a hiring phase in 2015.
Identified Technologies, which works with clients in the construction and energy sectors, had to build up a network of licensed pilots across the country for its business.
“Any industry where there’s a lot of activity on a large site is going to benefit from this. A drone can cover about 100 acres in nine minutes,” Mr. Zhang said. “Compare that to the alternative — it could take days for a human.”
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