Commercial drones take off in Charlotte area


By Rachel Adams-Heard

Small businesses in Charlotte are using drones to take pictures of houses, golf courses and even weddings – and they’re not waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to draw up a final set of rules.

Ranging from the size of a tennis ball to that of a helicopter, commercial drones are drawing attention across the country as photographers, insurance companies and marketers see the technology providing a competitive edge. Amazon, for example, has sought permission from the FAA to operate drones as part of its new Prime Air, which aims to deliver packages in “30 minutes or less.”

For now, though, the unmanned aerial gadgets – controlled remotely by handheld device or computer – are not technically allowed for commercial use without specific permission. Congress has called on the FAA to come up with a plan for regulating the technology by Sept. 30, 2015 – a deadline some say the agency is unlikely to meet.

Charlotte-area business owners who use drones say they welcome regulations but worry that competitors will gain a foothold if they wait for the FAA.

“The applications are limitless,” said Larry Harwell, owner of Carolina Digital Photo Group, which uses drones to capture aerial footage of golf courses and high-rise office buildings for clients such as real estate companies. “I think it’ll become very popular.” The company uses four drones – three $2,000 drones and a $17,000 model that delivers higher resolution photos.

Charles Pierre, owner of Helicopter Hobbies in Matthews, switched about a year ago from selling primarily radio-controlled helicopters to drones that can accommodate cameras. Now, about half his customers buy drones for commercial use.

“This thing’s just growing so fast,” he said. “This is like the Internet boom.”

Dominic Sansotta is co-owner of Nowsay, a Charlotte video productions company. He said the company uses drones to film anything from promotional videos for businesses to weddings.

Sansotta said drones offer a new perspective by capturing a subject, such as a newly married couple in a garden, from above. “It’s drawn a lot of attention and clients.”

A spokesperson for the FAA said the letters the agency sends to unauthorized drone operators are “informational” and promote “voluntary compliance.”

The FAA already regulates “recreational” drones, which may not fly above 400 feet or near an airport.

“Just do the right thing and they’ll leave you alone,” said Terrice McClain, who uses a drone he built himself as part of Sky Pros, the marketing business he started earlier this year.

McClain has been interested in drones ever since he spotted one at an airport Brookstone store in 2009. Then his wife got him one for Christmas.

“I crashed that thing so many times,” he said. Figuring out how to operate his drone took time and patience, he said.

McClain said safety is his No. 1 concern. He flies only in unpopulated areas and doesn’t allow his three young daughters near his drone.

And while he acknowledges that the rules surrounding commercial drones are in flux, he worries other businesses will overtake him if he waits on the FAA.

Like many other business owners, McClain and Sansotta said they welcome regulations that would curb recent incidents, like when a hobbyist flew a drone too close to a police helicopter in New York City in July. They said they would even pay for a permit – they’re just tired of waiting.

North Carolina is close to having its own drone legislation. A provision requiring a state licensing system for commercial drones and their operators passed the legislature as part of the state budget bill. Under the system, a person must be at least 18 years old, have a valid driver’s license and pass a “skills test” administered by the state or an approved agency. The system would take effect only if the FAA enacts regulations. The state budget awaits the signature of Gov. Pat McCrory, who has said he will sign it this week.

N.C.’s flight plan

North Carolina has drawn particular interest from drone advocates. Some companies that manufacture their own drones hope to partner with N.C. State University, which has authorization from the FAA to conduct drone research as part of its NextGen Air Transportation program.

“I consider (drones) a large part of the future of aviation and a great opportunity for North Carolina to take a leadership role,” said Kyle Snyder, a drone expert at NextGen.

One company working with NextGen is PrecisionHawk, a data collection firm that uses drones to gather aerial footage to assist agribusiness, insurance companies and emergency responders. The company has moved all its business operations to Raleigh, consolidating some functions from Indianapolis.

“North Carolina is certainly growing to be a hub for this technology,” said Lia Reich, a spokeswoman for PrecisionHawk.

After this year’s deadly mudslide in Oso, Wash., PrecisionHawk was enlisted to build a model of the land using footage captured with a drone.

Another company that makes its own drone is Olaeris, which has worked with police, fire and rescue agencies on ways to use its lightweight drone in emergency response. The company has asked North Carolina for $6 million for Olaeris and NextGen to integrate its technology statewide. Should the state approve the partnership, the company has committed to spending $20 million in North Carolina in the first 2 1/2 years of implementing its drone-powered emergency response system.

Ted Lindsley, CEO of Olaeris, said the FAA’s pace is frustrating.

“The truth is, FAA doesn’t fully understand (drone) technology or how to integrate it into the national airspace, so they continue stalling,” Lindsley said.

A spokesperson for the FAA said the agency faces a large challenge that takes time.

“Considering the complex mix of users, the introduction of unmanned aircraft into America’s airspace must take place incrementally and with the interest of safety first,” the spokesperson said.

Privacy concerns

While businesses eager to tap into the new technology complain of slow decision-making by the state and the FAA, others say the deliberation is a good thing.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina believes the provisions just passed by the legislature are too lenient for law enforcement and too strict for the private sector.

Under the bill, law enforcement could use drones to conduct surveillance in “plain view” or with a warrant.

But Sarah Preston, policy director for the ACLU of N.C., said she worries that commercial drone operators wouldn’t have all the freedoms enjoyed by standard photographers, like the ability to take a picture of a public park without getting permission from every person in the photograph.

“I think the privacy concerns are legitimate,” said Preston. But, she adds, “those (privacy) laws exist and would apply to photographs with drones.”

Meanwhile, an audit released in June by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general found that the FAA is unlikely to meet the September 2015 deadline for enacting regulations.

A notice of the FAA’s rule for small drones weighing 55 pounds or less is expected this year, opening the proposal for public comment. Snyder, the NextGen drone expert at N.C. State, said he anticipates a final rule to be released in late 2016 or early 2017.

A spokesperson for the FAA said the agency continues to meet milestones it put in place in response to the looming deadline. “We released our (drone) roadmap last November, which details the steps we need to take to make integration possible, and we continue to meet the milestones in the plan,” the spokesperson said.

In a letter to the FAA on July 25, a group of professors expressed their concern with the current restrictions on commercial drones. “It is concerning, for example, that a 10-year-old hobbyist can freely fly model aircraft for recreation, while our nation’s scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs are prohibited from using the technology in the same types of environments,” the letter said.

Mary “Missy” Cummings, a visiting associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke University, was one of the professors who signed the letter.

Cummings, who wants to use drones for wildlife conservation research, said the FAA’s restrictions “make it outright impossible to do in this country.”

“There are many countries that are way ahead of us,” said Cummings. “We’ve lost the edge.”

As for the September 2015 deadline?

“They’re totally going to miss it,” she said. “There’s just no way.”

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