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Commercial drone use takes off

Area companies eager for FAA to relax rules soon for unmanned aircraft

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    Hobby Town’s Ken Porter holds the Inductrix, left, and the Blade Chroma, inside the store in Holland. The new regulations will make operating drones easier and cheaper, said Seth Geib, senior interactive designer with Hart Associates.

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  • 31b1seth-2

    Hart’s Seth Geib flies the DJI Inspire 1-Raw drone with an X5R camera. Hart was one of the first area firms to receive an exemption of requiring a licensed pilot at the controls.

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    Dan Mills of Owens Corning operates a DJI Phantom 3 Professional drone. While OC already has an exemption under the tougher FAA rules, the firm is exploring other uses when the relaxed rules take effect.

    OWENS CORNING

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    The Blade Chroma is among many unmanned aircraft for sale at Hobby Town. The FAA new rules apply only to daylight operation of drones weighing 55 pounds or less.

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The federal government soon will relax its rules on aerial drones, a move that should open the skies to commercial operators who have been eager to get in on the game but in many cases shied away over the long process and high costs associated with getting airborne.

Starting late next month, the Federal Aviation Administration will scrap rules that required drone pilots to secure a special waiver from the agency and have a valid pilot’s license. Going forward, the agency will require only a background check and a remote pilot certificate.

“That is really going to change the landscape for commercial-drone operators,” said Tom McMahon, a spokesman for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Though the FAA’s upcoming rules apply only to daylight operation of drones weighing 55 pounds or less and require pilots to keep the craft below 400 feet in the air at speeds below 100 mph, the move is viewed as an important first step toward fully integrating unmanned aircraft into the nation’s airspace.

“They definitely will make it easier,” said Seth Geib, senior interactive designer with Hart Associates in Maumee.

Hart, a public relations and advertising agency, was one of the first firms in the Toledo-area to receive an exemption under the FAA’s old guidelines that required a licensed pilot at the controls.

“With the new regulations it’s going to be much cheaper and much easier to get pretty much everybody on our video team certified to fly it,” Mr. Geib said. “That’s going to be very helpful.”

A number of other area companies are closely watching the upcoming rules. Walbridge-based contractor the Rudolph Libbe Group has been monitoring the situation. Both Owens Corning and Marathon Petroleum Corp. sought and received exemptions from the FAA and are exploring potential uses.

Chuck Hartlage, a spokesman for OC, said the company has used drones to shoot training videos that are distributed to its sales team and roofing contractors.

“If [we] can do that from the ground versus the roof there’s a safety aspect of it as well,” he said. “We’re very into safety, anything we can do to help our people avoid risks has positive benefits.”

Relaxing restrictions on commercial drones could open up more opportunities for OC, Mr. Hartlage added.

Rudolph Libbe hasn’t used drones yet, but spokesman June Remley said clearly there are opportunities.

“We’ve been using aerial photography shot from a plane for years with great results, but a drone can give a contractor tighter views of a project. It can be used in building inspections, and it can be used inside a structure,” she said.

Rudolph Libbe officials have talked to vendors and studied regulations for some time, and Ms. Remley said the upcoming FAA changes make it more likely they will move forward.

The Consumer Technology Association forecasts drone sales to more than double this year to 2.4 million.

Ken Porter, who sells drones at the Hobby Town USA store in Holland, said the store sells out of its most popular model almost every week.

“Some people like to do it for sport and recreation; a lot of people like to do it for photography and videography. You can get some really great landscape photos. You can also look at your fields. We’ve got farmers checking to see if we’ve got anything that can do that,” he said.

Though drone technology advancement rapidly has made the devices cheaper, more capable, and easier to use, the commercial applications — at least, legal ones — have been limited. In the roughly two years the FAA has been making exemptions for commercial usage, only about 5,500 exemptions were granted.

As it becomes easier to get airborne, the number of companies using drones is expected to rise significantly. Even with the relatively small drones that the upcoming FAA rules will cover, the number of possible applications are huge.

In an examination of the first 300 exemptions granted by the FAA, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International found nearly 40 uses. Mr. McMahon said drones are proving particularly useful in the real estate, construction, and utility industries.

FirstEnergy Corp., which delivers electricity across the Toledo area, already has found uses for unmanned aerial vehicles. Company spokesman Chris Eck said FirstEnergy contracted a drone operator to inspect power plants, including a recent inspection of a natural-gas-fired plant near Pittsburgh.

“We figured conducting the inspection by drone saved us two days and $12,000,” Mr. Eck said. “We will continue to use them to inspect lines, stations, and power plants. They can get in close without any structure coming up from the ground.”

Just last week, FirstEnergy conducted its first drone inspections of transmission lines, something generally done either from the ground or by helicopter.

‘Something big’

Experts believe drone use is on the cusp of something big.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates drones could contribute $82 billion to the nation’s economy and create 100,000 jobs by 2025.

While other estimates are more conservative, there’s no doubt that professional drones may make a big impact in a lot of industries.

Stelios Kotakis, an analyst with IHS Markit, said one area of particular potential is agriculture.

“There are already lots of specialized products and services for this industry in the market, and the fact that it is a rural activity makes the drone use easier,” he said.

IHS expects the global market for professional drones to be worth almost $1 billion by 2017, with $322 million coming from the Americas.

“I would say here that it looks very promising for businesses, despite the fact that some corporations will not be happy with the absence of the possibility for beyond visual line operation,” Mr. Kotakis said.

One of the FAA’s rules remains that no one may operate a drone beyond the vision of the pilot or a spotter in constant communication with the pilot. That effectively prevents companies such as Amazon.com from using drones to deliver packages.

However, Mr. Kotakis noted that the retail giant recently announced plans to experiment with drone delivery in the United Kingdom.

Still, experts and businesses say the FAA generally has done a good job developing rules that both serve and protect the public.

“We want to keep our national airspace safe, and yet the job of the FAA ... is to promote commerce between the states,” said Jason Lorenzon, a northeast Ohio attorney who specializes in aviation law.

Mr. Lorenzon, a licensed pilot too, said most drones on the market today are so technologically advanced that they’re relatively easy to use and have built-in safety features. Still, he said there need to be guidelines.

“That’s not necessarily to make it restrictive. It’s to make it safe.”

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.

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