Eyes in the sky

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Emerging opportunities for commercial drone use will change how business is conducted

Story by J. S. Decker

 

Kids, hobbyists and soldiers fly drones all the time.

Businesses are the only group left behind as the Federal Aviation Administration takes its time developing rules for the rapidly-advancing technology. At long last in February, the FAA proposed how it might regulate commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles, and is now sifting through more than 4,500 comments before finalizing those rules – expected sometime in 2017.

That’s still not soon enough for some business professionals.

“Real estate brokers are chomping at the bit to use them for listings and so forth, but the FAA is standing in the way,” lamented Debbi Conrad, director of legal affairs for the Wisconsin Realtors Association. That sector is getting used to rapid change after the Internet put property listings at everyone’s fingertips. Photos are great marketing, she said, but a home looks much more exciting when filmed from every angle. All the features can be seen in relation to each other, including the flaws.

“You’ve got to be careful you don’t go too high because you might show the neighboring property that looks better!” Conrad added. A few real estate agents are already using drones for interior videos, which is perfectly legal, but their patience is being tested on exterior shots outdoors.

For as little as $30 a remote-controlled battery-powered helicopter with a camera can be bought in the toy section of many department stores. Resolution, performance and endurance increase with the sale price of the rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, from several hundred to several hundred thousand dollars. Without a human pilot on board, the aircraft can be lighter and smaller. Sometimes the most expensive part of the entire set-up is elaborate camera gear that records far beyond the visual spectrum.

The United States is well behind the rest of the world, where oil companies use aerial drones to monitor pipelines and farmers keep an eye on crop growth. Uses are seemingly limitless, although the February proposal only covers aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds, flying no higher than 500 feet, and remaining within sight of the operator. Such a diminutive aircraft is all any wedding photographer needs, and American brides don’t want to wait any more.

Several photographers have received requests to use drones they already own for commercial purposes. Companies can apply for a Section 333 exemption, which allows a pilot to operate a drone for pay.

The appeal of drone use

Aerial drones with still and video cameras are dynamic, versatile tools that do far more than snap a few pictures of the scenery. Drones produce video that looks like Superman might have filmed it, with rotating lenses darting over or through a landscape or a skyline at varying speeds.

Not everyone is waiting for the law to catch up. It’s not hard to find a production company willing to take payment for photos and video shot by a drone. Once it is legal, the number of providers will skyrocket.

That means less work for traditional aerial photography. Steve Ryan, owner of Ryan Commercial Photography of Green Bay, remains confident he can provide a better service flying in a rented Cessna than a robot ever could.

“Most of the aerial photography I do cannot be done, or at least cannot be done at the same quality, using a fixed wing or helicopter drone,” he asserted. The 500-foot restriction is good news for him.

“Larger projects require more elevation and less wide angle coverage,” he explained. “The wide angle coverage distorts perspective and geometry.”

Over the last 25 years his clients have included the Green Bay Packers, municipalities and corporations. “Some of it is for engineering purposes in order to aid in mapping and scale,” he said.

Yes, drones will compete against his services, Ryan acknowledged. “I do see they are a competitor and there certainly is the potential that they would take market share.” But, he suggested, “Quite honestly, I don’t know that they can do it for less cost.”

Gaining early experience

Doug Heim was very happy running AngelCopter out of Oneida.

“In 2007 my wife and I invested big bucks in a high-tech drone that could fly programmed flights. We saw a vision of aerial photography,” he recalled. “Two months after we bought it the government came out and put out a rule that you can’t fly drones anymore.”

“We continued to fly under the radar. I made $500 in 3 minutes,” Heim said. “I’d take the thing up, snap some pictures, land the thing and go off to my next job.”

Heim suggested use of the technology to some of his real estate agent acquaintances early on, but at the time none of them shared his enthusiasm, yet. “I showed them the difference of the aerial picture vs the ground picture. They didn’t get it. It amazed me,” he said. “There was a lot of resistance in the beginning. Now, everybody gets what a drone is. It’s not a toy. Its a machine that can go up and accomplish missions.”

He did just that before he sold his several custom-made drones. “I’d take these model helicopters and mount cameras and stabilizing equipment and remote control viewfinders.” Now he just has one and is planning to sell it, too.

“I was doing this for several years,” he pointed out, and the threat of an enforcement action never seemed to be more than a threat. “I was in downtown Green Bay taking pictures with a drone of a church steeple that was being re-roofed and a policeman came over. He was just fascinated with the helicopter,” Heim noted. “Its’ not a local law, a state law, it’s not even a federal law, it’s a regulation.”

So, he quit while he was ahead? “I quit while I had a head, let’s put it that way!”

Penalties not worth the risk

FAA Spokesperson Les Dorr said jail time is not one of the consequences for commercial operation of a drone without proper approval.

“The amount of a proposed civil penalty depends on the egregiousness of the safety violation. The statutory maximum penalty is $25,000,” he said.

Officials from the FAA office in Chicago, which oversees the Midwest airspace, indicated there hasn’t been a single FAA civil penalty issued against Wisconsin residents for unmanned aircraft systems violations.

Enforcement seems to follow far behind education. According to Dorr, “When we find out about an apparent unauthorized UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) operation, we promote voluntary compliance by educating individual UAS operators about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws.”

Punishment seems reserved for those flying drones near airports or otherwise posing a danger to other aircraft. Dorr continued, “We may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a UAS in a way that endangers the safety of the national airspace system.”

There’s more at risk than a slap on the wrist, Ryan insisted.

“As a business, if you start violating the law, if anything happens you’re going to lose your future. I work with big corporations. I don’t put them at that risk,” Ryan said.

If a 55-pound flying object goes off course, it can cause substantial damage or even death. “The liability issue cannot be ignored,” he added, “If there was an accident it would be the operator and it would also be the client who is liable.”

Aero Insurance of Madison is already writing policies for the new market, said agent Jeff Rasmussen. It’s a tricky field because it’s so new. There’s not decades of data on unmanned aerial drone crashes to establish premium costs.

“We’ve written about a dozen policies in the last six months. Some for manufacturers, some for operators,” he said. “The FAA is trying to make it very, very strict and very, very tight who can operate legally. One of the things that is banned is flying over densely populated venues like sporting events and concerts.”

“It’s going to be a very rapid growth area for aviation but it’s a potentially scary aspect for insurance,” Rasmussen predicted. “Here’s all the rules and regs, but so what? Unless you’re going to have people from the FAA walking around, looking to shut down drone operators, (it won’t matter much).”

J.S. Decker is a business journalist based in Oshkosh.