The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources wanted to fly a two-pound toy helicopter with a camera attached over remote marshland to monitor invasive species.
It was an idea that would save money — no $200-an-hour plane rental — while giving researchers more flexibility.
The problem? FAA regulations for a toy helicopter under such a situation are the same as those for a predator drone.
“The whole beginning of this was that we got the idea that we could use a remote control helicopter to find invasive plants in places where it became impossible to go by boat,” said Mike Pursley, DMR’s aquatic invasive species coordinator and field project manager.
“It would potentially save a lot of money,” he explained. “It would help find invasive hogs, plants — and it could help documenting day-to-day effects of coastline erosion.”
Pursley said the department applied for a grant and got the toy helicopter. But meeting FAA regulations proved too difficult. For example, Pursley said, even though DMR had a permit to fly the helicopter in a well-defined 50-acre plot of land, the local aircraft tower required two days’ notice. Regulations also required two people to man the flight, with both the pilot and official observer having medical airworthiness certificates and pilots’ licenses.
Since most unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have been used for military purposes, there aren’t specialized guidelines outside that arena yet.
“The FAA just released some statements last month about what they propose those certifications might look like, but right now we don’t know,” said Hinds Community College aviation instructor Randy Pearcy.
In essence, those who operate drones must be qualified to operate full-sized aircraft.
“We were pretty crestfallen when we found all these regulations. It’s not feasible right now,” Pursley said. “We don’t have the manpower to jump through those hoops.”
Meanwhile, DMR is hoping to generate support to train or hire pilots to fly its helicopter.
Pursley believes that by 2015, when drones will be cleared for civilian use, there will be more reasonable regulations for situations like DMR’s.
“I’m hoping they’ll have a standardized program with more classes of aircraft,” he said.