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Making a Viable Business of Drones

Regulations and reporting requirements, though stringent, might help the small UAS sector.

Entrepreneurs who want to fly drones to make money currently must endure a time-consuming bureaucratic process to do so — but only in the U.S.

Many argue that the FAA has imposed too many policies, and those put in place are not enforceable by law. Unfortunately, this has set the stage for noncompliance. The delay for new regulations (specifically the highly anticipated FAR Part 107), many argue, is raising barriers to entry for new manufacturers, providers and entrepreneurs. A large number of those who fly drones for cash are simply ignoring theFAA’s patchwork of rules.

When approving commercial drone operation requests, aviation authorities consider the level of complexity and purpose of the operation and take a risk-based approach to approvals. Commercial drone operators in the U.S. must petition the FAA for a Section 333 exemption to fly, a process that can take seven to eight months and has little to do with evaluating or mitigating risk. Strangely, the agency has been more concerned with how the requested operation will benefit the economy or public

A captured course-line of the point-of-interest feature in the DJI Go's consumer app for the Phantom 3 Professional is automation.Photo by Mark Colborn

The FAA prohibits commercial drone flights within 500 ft from all non-participating people, vessels, vehicles and structures unless certain requirements can be met. This is a legitimate safety restriction because the majority of consumer drones on the market today only come with operating instructions. You will not find maintenance schedules, time-life limited parts lists or TBO schedules in their manuals. Operators have no idea how long the machines will last. If a motor fails on a quad multi-rotor, it will crash. Currently, these operators are all test pilots.

The FAA appears to be catching on, however, and taking a risk-based approach to drafting Part 107. In February, the agency created a small UAS coalition to study and recommend standards that could clear the way for commercial flights over populated areas and hasten the arrival of drone package delivery to a neighborhood near you. The group sent its report to the FAA April 1, then promptly split up. Apparently the priorities of the consumer drone manufacturers and package delivery proponents no longer coincided. The committee recommended four separate drone categories for flying over people or crowds.

A DJI S-800 Spreading Wings hexacopter has LED navigation lights.Photo by Mark Colborn

In late 2014, the FAA reversed its long-standing policy against any commercial use of drones and began issuing Section 333 exemptions. This created an initial rush of training requests, according to Steve Dupont, operations director at Rotor F/X at Van Nuys Airport in California. Corporations that wanted to use drones filed for Section 333s and quickly wanted operator training. However, many of these prospective students didn’t have pilots’ licenses. Rotor F/X, which also offers helicopter and fixed-wing training, was thus able to offer tailored training courses.

Obtaining a 333 exemption was only the first step. It exempted only the petitioned airframe (for instance a DJI Phantom 3 or Yuneec 500Q) from the FAA’s airworthiness certification requirements. Upon receiving an exemption, the petitioner had to apply for and be granted a certificate of waiver or authorization (COA). This created an additional 60-day wait before operations could begin.

The second surge in training requests, according to Dupont, came in July after the FAA started including a blanket Form 7711-1 COA with each 333 exemption. This let operators fly immediately as long as they stayed below 200 ft agl.

This COA restriction, however, soon became a problem for the FAA. It was inundated with COA requests for operations up to 400 ft agl. On March 29, after a comprehensive risk analysis, the FAA raised the blanket altitude authorization on all 333s to 400 ft agl (and it made it retroactive for all previous 333 grantees).

In the past year, the FAA has been swamped with 333 petitions. What originally began as a 120-day process is now taking seven-plus months. The FAA was not given more staff to handle the increase. As of April 1, it managed to approve 4,475 exemptions. I petitioned for one on Aug. 15. My application wasn’t even docketed until Dec. 9.

All 333 operators must report their UAS activities (including no activity) to the FAA every month. An operator is required to email his or her name (but not a pilot’s certificate number), exemption number and “N” number of any UAS flown. Operators are asked to include the location, number of flights (per location and UAS), number of hours and any takeoff or landing damage. Equipment malfunctions, such as a motor, control station or navigation system failure or battery issue, must be reported. If the machine experiences any “lost link” events, their duration and number have to be reported. The data submitted should assist in creating a database of recommended maintenance schedules for drone components.

A Yuneec 500Q Typhoon Ground ControllerPhoto by Mark Colborn

The blanket COA also requires an operator to request a NOTAM 72 hr (or no less than 24 hr) before an intended operation. Dupont advised this requirement pertains more to film production sets in which filming will occur for an entire day or longer. He said the FAA rarely publishes a NOTAM for an operator who will only spend 30 min conducting a crop survey or filming a home for a real estate company. Common sense would dictate that the FAA is less concerned with these types of operations because flights are generally conducted no higher than surrounding trees or obstructions and occur over a short timeframe.

Tom Dolan, president of Above It All - UAS Services, said he believes he is exposing his company to FAA enforcement and jeopardizing his pilot’s license if he doesn’t follow the NOTAM requirement outlined in his 333. “Police officers and pilots are held to higher standards, and 333 operators should be too,” said Dolan. He said he feels it is best to follow the law and file one every time, not only for compliance reasons, but also for safety. “It is a bit ludicrous because if an airplane is operating within 400 feet of the ground, the pilot is probably having bigger problems than looking out for my drone,” Dolan explained. He said he applies for NOTAMs days in advance for several days at a time, blanketing a wider area where he may need to operate should flight requirements change (both to be covered and because Mother Nature doesn’t usually cooperate with flight plans).

While researching this story, I responded to a UAS photography service advertisement on a digital billboard on the side of the freeway. The individual who answered my call (and did not want to be identified) admitted to me that he had filed for a 333, but did not have it yet. Apparently, I was not the only person to see his billboard and call — so did an FAA Inspector. The owner described the services he could provide and quoted prices. The inspector then came clean and told the owner he needed to stop until he got his 333.

Drone U, a web-based community of commercial drone pilots offering podcasts, webinars and other UAS resources, stated in a Feb. 17 podcast that not having a 333 was an enormous hindrance to starting a business. The experience of our intrepid entrepreneur lends credence to this claim.

Noncompliance, according to Drone U, was the reason an amendment calling for a micro-UAS provision was attached to legislation before Congress. The rule, if ratified, would exempt commercial and public safety uses of all drones weighing less than 4.4 lb, or 2 kg, (including payload) from any airworthiness requirements. It would also exempt the operator from any testing or pilot license requirements. Operations up to 400 ft agl would be allowed, within line of sight, during daylight hours only and within 5 mi of an airport if prior notice is given and received from ATC.

Operators might find all the required reporting cumbersome, but it has the potential to be good for the industry. Both Dupont and Dolan believe the requirements are not too stringent, at least given current technology.

It could be argued that many companies who manufacture drones or the technology associated with them are being held back by the FAA. Others might be waiting to see what the FAA will do or be forced to do by Congress. Change, however is coming. With the exception of dodging an occasional bird or crop duster, as helicopter pilots, we used to enjoy the exclusive use of Class G airspace below 500 ft agl. Not any more.

NASA Tests Multi-Drone Traffic System

NASA, the FAA and researchers from throughout the U.S. were scheduled to participate last month in a large-scale test of a traffic management research tool for unmanned aircraft systems.

Scheduled for April 19, the test was to involve up to 24 drone flights operating from six FAA-designated UAS throughout the U.S. The sites are in Blacksburg, Virginia; Bushwood, Maryland; Fairbanks, Alaska; Grand Forks, North Dakota; Reno, Nevada; Rome, New York; and Corpus Christi, Texas, if weather permitted.

Operators at the sites were to enter flight plans, which the NASA-developed unmanned aircraft system traffic-management research platform would analyze for conflicts. The platform would accept or reject the flight plans and notify the operators.

Engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, were to monitor the flights remotely using research platform.

The purpose was to allow operators from the sites to interact with the research platform, using various aircraft and different software to test rural, line-of-sight UAS operations so that NASA and the FAA can further refine and develop their research. R&WI