More businesses may be going to the drones after FAA rule change
By Jack Suntrup, Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer
Getting clearance to fly drones commercially can be tough. It can take months for companies to win approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and cost thousands of dollars for someone to get a necessary pilot's license.
Since the FAA started accepting applications for what's become known as a Section 333 exemption in 2014, the agency has approved 6,100 applications nationwide; 7,600 are pending.
But that process is about to change. On Tuesday, the FAA announced new regulations that don't require the special permission. The agency will also stop requiring operators to obtain a pilot's license.
The new rule, designed for devices weighing less than 55 pounds, instead requires drone operators to pass an aeronautical knowledge test and clear a background check to earn a "remote pilot certificate."
The result: Barriers to entry will be lowered when the rule takes effect in late August. Analysts expect more startups and investments for all sorts of uses, including agriculture, infrastructure inspections, public safety and photography.
"The biggest change is that commercial drone companies will no longer have to get special approval from the FAA to do their drone operations," said Steve Hogan, a Tallahassee lawyer and host of the Drone Law podcast. "That is going to unleash a lot of pent-up entrepreneurial energy over the next six months to a year."
The 333 waivers were seen as a stop-gap measure, meant to allow commercial activity while the FAA developed a concrete regulatory scheme. A 2013 report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says the United States should experience an $82 billion economic impact with more than 100,000 jobs created over a decade if widespread commercial drone use is allowed.
For Florida, that means a $467 million economic impact and 4,800 jobs, the group said.
But for now, concepts like delivery of goods via drones remain unsettled. Under the new rules, drone operators would have to keep the devices in their line of sight, won't be able to fly at night and won't be able to fly devices over people — hampering, at least temporarily, companies such as Amazon, which have sought to deliver goods via drones.
"If you are trying to deliver a package from a fulfillment center and you are flying over someone's house, you are directly over people," said Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and a former staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times. "That says Amazon is not happening.
"The FAA is really concerned about drones being able to see and avoid other aircraft (beyond line of sight), and how you do that," he said.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a news release that the FAA will try to keep pace with advancing technologies.
"We are taking a careful and deliberate approach that balances the need to deploy this new technology with the FAA's mission to protect public safety," Huerta said.
Local business owners expect a rush from hobbyists-turned-businessmen in the short run, but it's unclear how newcomers will do long term, given that established companies have a leg up in brand recognition, talent and technology development.
"I think initially we'll probably see some new companies," said Ryan English, the president of Tampa-based FlyMotion Unmanned Systems. "But just like we saw when we got into the industry, there were a lot of players in the market but a lot have fallen off."
English says there could be a noticeable influx of drones in real estate and other kinds of photography, where expensive equipment isn't required.
Chris Durante, CEO of Eagle Eye Assets, an aerial photography and cinematography company in Oldsmar, says that for photographers, especially, there is enough business to go around.
"Do I see an influx of drone companies now that someone can actually get it and operate it legally? Absolutely," he said. "Do I believe there's enough for everybody? Absolutely.
"However, the companies that have had their feet in the water a little longer, I guess, still have an advantage," Durante said.
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