By Bill Lambrecht
WASHINGTON – Pressured by Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration is rapidly launching a new era in unmanned flight with hundreds of exemptions to a federal ban on commercial use of drones.
Without fanfare, the FAA has issued nearly 750 exemptions – more than 60 to Texas companies and individuals – enabling small drones to take flight for a host of reasons, from real estate promotion to television filming to inspections of cell towers and croplands, records show.
The FAA handed out more than 90 percent of exemptions just since April, illustrating the speed by which the nation’s aviation authority is moving. In June alone, the FAA granted authorizations for commercial unmanned aircraft systems in 42 states and Puerto Rico.
Several Houston-area companies and individuals have sought the exemptions. D&C Inspection Services in Seabrook intends to use the drones for safety inspections; Flying Solutions in Missouri City for flight training, film production & other services; Trumbull Unmanned in Houston for energy industry mapping and monitoring.
Meanwhile, availability of Chinese-made drones for as little as $500 is spawning low-investment startups in an atmosphere likened by enthusiasts to the early days of personal computers.
Steven Combs’ Drone-view LLC, in Elmendorf, swiftly parlayed an exemption in April into a money-making operation. Droneview is conducting aerial photography for a construction company and Bexar County real estate clients.
Last week, Combs received FAA approval to operate another new drone, and business is going so well he is opening a Drone-view branch in Minnesota.
The rapid developments presage the day of drones commonly hovering above, a sight Americans might or might not be prepared for. FAA officials say they’ll have a final rule governing small drones in place early next year. That regulation as drawn would require simply a vetting and a written test rather than the pilot’s certificate needed for the current exemptions.
As government speeds toward the once futuristic prospect of deliveries by drone, civil liberties advocates and even promoters in Congress worry that privacy protections are absent.
Privacy went unmentioned in the three-year-old federal law ordering the FAA to open the national air space for commercial drones. The FAA deals only with safety. And courts have said nothing about how privacy will be defined.
Yet privacy protections likely will be a factor in public acceptance of a sky abuzz with quadcopters and tiny planes. Combs recognizes as much in the warnings he is hearing.
“I’ve had people say to me that if that thing ever comes over my place I’m going shoot it out of the sky,” Combs said.
He might have reason to worry. Last year, a shotgun-wielding waiter in New Jersey blasted a Chinese-made DJI Phantom drone similar to the unmanned aircraft Combs operates. Soon after, another miniature flying machine was brought down in California by shotgun.
Last month in New York, firefighters trained a blast of water on a hobbyist’s drone, damaging it and raising First Amendment questions about what can be filmed.
Texas is among the states that expressly forbid aerial surveillance. Combs’ worry about perceptions is why he promises on his website not to use his quadcopter “for snooping or to spy on a business, property or persons.”
The exemptions flying out of the FAA come with safety-related stipulations: Operators must have a pilot’s certificate, keep drones in their lines of sight and operate in daylight only. Drones can weigh no more than 55 pounds and fly no higher than 400 feet.
Even with FAA restrictions, now is a pivotal time for drones.
“It’s busting loose,” said Jacob Rachniowski, a 26-year-old entrepreneur from Austin whose Cloud9-Drones looks to be a step ahead of the competition.
Besides inspecting cell towers and transmission lines, Rachniowski’s company designs customized aircraft and helps companies integrate drones into their operations.
His fear is that hobbyists and operators who ignore FAA standards will cloud public perceptions. “There are people out there and companies like ours who will have to compete with people who aren’t following the rules,” he said.
Companies getting FAA authorization have declared a variety of plans. In the Houston area, Trumbull Unmanned said it intends to use drones for monitoring in the energy industry. Bechtel Equipment Operations wants images of construction sites. Arch Aerial says it will offer its eight-rotor, seven-pound OCTO drone for uses ranging from agriculture monitoring to damage assessment.
In his application to the FAA, Craig Byrom of Katy said that in addition to using his drone for ranchland mapping, he intends to offer it for search-and-rescue. He noted that the body of a friend who went missing several years ago wasn’t located for three weeks on a ranch near Devine.
Noel Garcia, of San Antonio, might seem overqualified to operate his 2.9-pound, Chinese-made, DJI Phantom 2. As a certified air transport pilot, he flew Boeing 737s. He also was a combat pilot and helped devise the first Air Force drone-training program.
Garcia plans to film real estate parcels and build a business around telling video stories of neighborhoods that might appeal to homebuyers.
‘Cat’s out of the bag’
Tony “Bravo” Straw is another San Antonio ex-combat pilot downsizing to a drone. He intends to deploy his flying machine in his real estate businesses.
“The cat’s out of the bag. People can go buy (drones) just about anywhere,” said Straw, formerly an Air Force instructor pilot.
He added: “It’s not going to be something the FAA can control. Probably the best thing they could do is ensure that folks get the education and training they need.”
In a hearing last month, a Virginia congressman asked FAA deputy administrator Michael Whitaker about his property rights when a drone hovers 500 feet, or even three feet, above his home. Twice Whitaker used the phrase “gray area” in fumbling for an answer.
Equipping model aircraft with GPS-enabled computers may turn out to be just another extension of the Internet era with unknowns similar to those of two decades ago.
But the prospect of a camera-equipped drone capturing activities regarded as squarely within the realm of privacy worries civil libertarians. Concerns are heightened amid prospects of drones being outfitted with technology such as license plate scanners, facial recognition software, thermal-imaging cameras and even devices that trick cellphones into sending them data.
“Drones are just a mobile platform. It may be in the future, but you can affix a wide variety of sensors to that platform,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group that champions online freedoms.
How privacy protections will be factored into the arrival of drones remains unclear.
In 2012, when the House Transportation Committee wrote legislation ordering the FAA to write rules for commercial drones, members concluded they had no jurisdiction over privacy matters. The FAA didn’t offer to pick up the slack.
“You have to understand, the FAA is a safety agency and we don’t have the expertise to take the lead in any privacy effort,” FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.