UAV Takeoff at NCSU

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In one of the first major regulations of the burgeoning private drone industry, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced in October that new drone purchases will have to be registered with the federal government.

The move was a direct response to the increasing danger posed to aviation from cheap and simple to fly drones (or unmanned aerial systems, UAS), whose numbers have exploded in the past year and are expected to continue to grow exponentially.

In the Triangle, there's an emerging movement around drones for commercial purposes with leaders like the FAA-supported research and development operation at NC State University and PrecisionHawk, a venture-backed company building a platform for use in agriculture, mining, search & rescue, surveying and oil & gas industries. The North Carolina legislature was among the first to craft language around drone use, recognizing both its opportunity for commerce and its threat to privacy and safety. 


Boom in drone sales is coming

Many organizations hoped to be ready for the regulations released last month, and the registration system that a task force of government officials and industry representatives is slated to produce by November 20th. They're anticipating a busy holiday shopping season—over 700,000 to one million units are expected to be bought and sold yet this year. It’s estimated that over one million drones are already flying American skies, and industry experts expect over the next five years that nearly 30,000 could be flying at any given moment in U.S. airspace.

Under current FAA guidelines, drones are not supposed to be flown above 400 feet or within five miles of any airport without explicit permission. But, the rules are widely ignored, and nearly 100 drones sightings a month are being reported by pilots nationwide.

The general consensus is that it isn’t if a major accident will occur, but when, and drones have already caused plenty of problems with aviation. In July, California state officials had to pull their aircraft from fighting a wildfire because drones were operating illegally in the area. Numerous cars sat and burned on highways as a result. And last month the FAA fined SkyPan a record $1.9 million for flying near Chicago and New York-area airports.

No one is exactly sure how the FAA will enforce the new rules, or whether there will be criminal penalties (currently, the FAA only levies civil fines, as in the case of SkyPan and about 20 other operators so far), but the message is clear that heavier regulation is coming, as more stringent (and comprehensive) rules are expected to be in place by 2017.

Like with any young industry however, the question with government regulation is how much and how soon. The United States government has historically treated new fields with a hands-off approach, which allows them to grow (the Internet and cellular technology are great examples). But the worry for some, is whether the government is helping or hampering the $2.5 billion industry. 


The local response 

ExitEvent spoke with local industry representatives, researchers, business developers and private hobbyists for their reaction and thoughts on how the new regulations might affect them.

Tyler Collins, director of business development for PrecisionHawk in Raleigh (profiled in ExitEvent this year), believes government intervention is a natural step toward the maturity of the UAS business, and he’s happy with the new regulations.

tyler collins drones precisionhawk precision hawk raleigh
Tyler Collins is director of business development at PrecisionHawk in Raleigh. Credit: PrecisionHawk

“We’ve had to register our aircraft since we started doing commercial work, so we’re used to it. I think it’s a step in the right direction. The FAA is being proactive and ahead of the curve. When people are flying drones they’re accessing the public infrastructure. Every time we drive on a road, whether it’s for personal pleasure or commercial work, we’ve always had to register our cars. And the FAA has every aircraft registered as well. It’s the same thing.”

Kyle Snyder, director of NC State’s NextGen Air Transportation program (selected in May to become part of the FAA’s Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems), is also confident that the federal government is getting it right, mostly because its working closely with the industry itself.

“PrecisionHawk was right up there on stage with the secretary [of the FAA] when they were making their announcement. It’s a sign that we’re there, that they’re listening, and that we all want to do the most responsible thing," Snyder says. "[The FAA] understands the big picture, and I think it’s a positive step in the right direction.”

Collins added that the FAA isn’t just making this stuff up, it comes directly from within the industry itself.

“They have to have data to support their laws. So we work with the FAA and Department of Transportation. They want to know what we’re learning,” he says.

NC State's NextGen Air Transportation program held a demonstration in January 2015 of the unmanned aerial systems it is testing and experimenting with at farms and sites across North Carolina. Credit: Ryan Timms/ExitEvent

As positive as both Collins and Snyder are on the insertion of government regulations into the private industry, they do admit that the new laws are mostly aimed at hobbyists, who have proven to be irresponsible at times. 

Both think the new regulations will improve the current state of affairs.

Collins says, “by requiring people to register drones, it allows us to further educate. A lot of people don’t know the laws. We don’t want to put an extra burden on people who do it as a hobby or partially commercial, but people have to be educated when they share the same airspace as airliners.”


A changing demographic of drone owner

Historically, drone hobbyists were aviator or pilot enthusiasts, and therefore took the laws of the skies seriously. But, with the advent of cheap drones, photographers and the like have treated their unmanned flying aircraft as simply an extension of their camera, and not something they need to register with the federal government. Few are thinking about observing airspace laws when they put a drone into flight.

Of course, this has caused many of the problems the FAA is trying to fix.

Here is where much of the angst in the industry lies, with commercial companies worried that irresponsible flying from hobbyists could threaten the regulation of the entire industry.

“That’s a concern for everybody,” Snyder says. “How do you stop that guy? It comes down to responsible operation. Licensing the operator is another step in that direction, and those rules are slated for next summer."

Collins adds, “Commercial flyers do have more to lose. We just want to push education. What we see on the news is often from a lack of education. Certification is a great way to fix that, whether flying is for personal pleasure or commercial use.”


Local hobbyists welcome regulation

ExitEvent spoke with two private drone owners for their takes, and both were more than happy to abide by the new laws.

Durham resident Jonathan Danforth, owner of Shinyphotos.com, considers himself just a hobbyist but a responsible one.

“I think registration is a good idea and I will comply. Responsible drone operators are, in my opinion, not the target of this requirement," he says. He admits that the operators who aren't considerate and who partake in dangerous behaviors make him anxious or uneasy about flying his "toy." 

"I would hope that registration would help alleviate some of those troubles,” Danforth says.

Kyle Sheats, a local videographer, agrees that regulation is a necessary step.

“It's not a bad thing," he says. "There are very few pilots out there being reckless with drones, but the few are always the ones seen in the headlines. Registering drones will be the first step towards a community that is more responsible and more respected.”

All four questioned by ExitEvent are confident that this is the right direction for an industry that wants to become mainstream and an everyday part of American life.

According to Sheats, “The sooner the FAA figures out how to regulate, the sooner drones will be accepted as a lifesaver rather than a nuisance.”