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First State businesses just starting to explore drone use

Wikimedia Commons/Frankie Fouganthin

New regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration have helped to clarify who can use drones – and how – for commercial purposes, but business use of unmanned aircraft systems has yet to soar in the First State.

The FAA rule, called Part 107, was issued in June and put into effect in August. It requires that anyone using a drone for business purposes must possess a remote pilot certificate issued by the agency. Earlier guidelines had required drone operators to acquire a manned aircraft pilot’s license or apply for an exemption from the former rule.

“This is what a great percentage of the industry has been begging for,” says Daniel Herbert, founder and CEO of Skygear Solutions, a Wilmington-based business that sells drones, trains operators and offers aerial photography and video services to its clients.

The situation before Part 107 took effect constituted somewhat of a paradox, Herbert explained. The collection of advisories and recommended best practices were difficult, if not impossible, to enforce, he said.  And the requirement that operators have a manned aircraft pilot’s license discouraged some users from going into business while others selling their services figuratively flew under the radar.

Under Part 107, operators can secure a license in about two weeks, after paying $150 to take an aeronautical knowledge exam at an FAA-licensed testing center, Herbert said.

In a news release announcing the regulations, the FAA stated that aviation industry experts believe the rule could generate more than $82 billion for the national economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.

Two businesses deemed likely to become early adopters of drone technology are photographers/videographers and real estate professionals. Although marketers like Amazon have advocated the use of drones for package delivery, the new rule sets visual line-of-sight (VLOS) standards requiring that a pilot or an observer in contact with the pilot keep the drone within view at all times, effectively ruling out such deliveries for now, Herbert said.

“We have a lot of different drones and plan on using them long into the future,” said Zach Phillips, a director of The Kitchen, a Wilmington marketing and design business.  “Two of our guys are going through the FAA training to be licensed.”

“Drones offer new perspectives at less expense,” said Mike Pfiefer, one of the pair preparing for the licensing exam.  He has been using drones for three years, and paid $3,000 for one that he owns. “I feel comfortable handling about 90 percent of the equipment,” he said. While he’s looking forward to getting his license, he notes that if a project requires equipment or skills beyond what The Kitchen has in-house, they won’t hesitate to outsource that work.

That’s why Herbert recently picked up three brief assignments shooting pieces of a video The Kitchen is developing for the Greater Wilmington Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Squatch Creative, another Wilmington video and web design business, occasionally used drones before the new rule took effect but is not using them now, according to founding partner Evan Lober. “We have not taken advantage of the new regulations but plan to revisit in the near future,” he said.  When drones are needed for a project, Squatch contracts the work out to licensed operators, he added.

TJ Redefer, owner of Rehoboth Bay Realty, is a drone enthusiast who was quick to recognize the potential  value of drones in marketing properties but had refrained from commercial uses because he had no desire to secure a pilot’s license. Instead, he would use his drone to create scenic videos of coastal Sussex, showcasing the beauty of the area rather than specific properties.

Soon after Rule 107 took effect, Redefer got his drone operator’s license. Now he can shoot interior video of his listings, take his drone outside and send it soaring above the home, giving a full 360-degree view of the property and the surrounding neighborhood.

“With the combination of interior video and a drone flying away from the exterior, a prospective buyer can get a total vision of a property from the comfort of his living room sofa,” Redefer said.

It hasn’t taken long for Redefer to broaden his commercial horizons. “I can sell my [aerial] pictures now, and I’ve already done some television commercials.”

Graves Carey, owner of 360 Property Solutions, a real estate and property management business in Lewes, not only uses drones in developing virtual tours of his property listings but is also providing the service to other real estate sales people in the area.

He is also working with architects and builders who are designing oceanfront homes. “They’re looking for an idea of what the view would look like from the second or third level. I’ll take a drone to the site, fly it up to the desired elevation, take pictures and create a video panorama,” he said.

Carey has also gotten calls from owners of businesses that are likely to become part of the next wave of commercial drone usage – home inspectors and property managers. Home inspectors should see drones as an effective way to check on the condition of hard-to-reach areas – roofs and chimneys, for example – and property managers could use drones to create videos to promote the attributes of the communities they manage, he said.

Pfiefer, at The Kitchen, said construction companies are starting to see the value of drones to document the progress at large-scale projects. “If you’re constructing a building and want to show how the site is coming along,” he said, “it’s better to use a drone to get an overview of the entire site than to try to stitch individual images together.”

Another Realtor and broker, Will Webber, who has offices in Newark and Greenville, says he occasionally uses a drone in connection with his business. Although he is registered with the FAA as a drone user, he has not applied for a commercial operator’s license because he does not believe that he needs one. “I do it do support my business. I do it for free. If someone hires me [to sell their house], it’s a bonus [service]. It’s not commercial,” he said.

“Am I defying the FAA? No. Am I playing by the rules? Yes. It’s a thin line,” he said.

Webber said he exploring getting a license, and will definitely do so if he is told it is required. Right now, he’s trying to absorb all of Rule 107. “It’s a 671-page PDF, and it was written by lawyers,” he said.

While Webber believes the license isn’t necessary because he isn’t charging clients when he uses a drone to take photos or videos of their homes, Redefer thinks the license is needed. “There is a gray line there,  but if it helps promote a property to be sold, then he’s making money from it,” making it a commercial use, he said.

In addition to photo/video and real estate businesses, police and public safety agencies are among the early adopters of drone technology. Wilmington police have used drones for crime-scene investigations and to capture images for courtroom use. Herbert is now providing classroom and flight training for several members of the Bensalem, Pennsylvania, police department. He has also spoken with police officials in Ocean View, but they have not decided whether to purchase drones.

“The law enforcement community is cautious,” he said. Due to ambiguity surrounding previous versions of FAA regulations, “they want to make sure they’re not violating anyone else’s regulations” in their use of drones.

Herbert, Redefer and Carey see many potential uses for drones beyond today’s applications. For example, if it’s practical to use drones to inspect the roofs of houses, why not the tops of water and cellphone towers? If police can use them to make records of crime scenes, why not use them to search remote areas for missing persons?

“You’re going to see the use of drones explode, into things people haven’t thought of yet,” Carey said.

“Five years from now,” added Redefer, “we won’t know how we ever did without them. It’s amazing where they’ll be going with this.”

With the new rule in place, drone operators expect to have an easier time convincing potential clients to use their services.

“We had been operating in a gray area,” Pfiefer said.

“You used to have to explain everything to them – exemptions, experience, all the rules,” Herbert said. “Now, we can say we have an FAA license and we carry insurance, and the confusion and the issues should go away.”

What’s in the rules?

Here are some key points in the FAA’s new rules governing commercial use of drones, more formally known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

  • A person operating a small UAS must either hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who does hold a remote pilot certificate (remote pilot in command).
  • To qualify for a remote pilot certificate, a person must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center or hold certain other pilot certificates; be at least 16 years old and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration.
  • Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs. (25 kg).
  • The unmanned aircraft must remain within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS. Alternatively, the unmanned aircraft must remain within VLOS of the visual observer.
  • Flights are permitted only during daylight, or civil twilight (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset) with appropriate anti-collision lighting.
  • Maximum groundspeed of 100 mph (87 knots).
  • Maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level (AGL) or, if higher than 400 feet AGL, remain within 400 feet of a structure.
  • Transportation of property for compensation or hire allowed provided that the aircraft, including its attached systems, payload and cargo weigh less than 55 pounds total; the flight is conducted within visual line of sight and not from a moving vehicle or aircraft; and the flight occurs wholly within the bounds of a single state. (While the rule states that waivers may be granted, the visual line of sight limitations would prevent drone usage for most commercial package delivery.)

The FAA website offers a summary of the new rule and the complete text of Part 107

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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