Colorado's ready-to-fly dronemakers stalled by MIA federal rules
Commercial unmanned aircraft systems getting FAA permits, but makers say safety rules will unleash full economic impact
Fifteen of the first 500 FAA exemptions permitting commercial drones to fly were granted in Colorado.
But enabling those and other waiting businesses to spur an estimated $232 million in economic impact — and create more than 1,190 jobs — in Colorado by 2017 hinges on long-delayed rules based on a 1946 U.S. Supreme Court case filed by a poultry farmer.
Yes, that's right. Regulation of high-tech drones in the U.S. starts with chickens.
Under current aviation law, aircraft must fly no lower than 1,000 feet above congested population areas, and at least 500 feet above less-populated areas.
But there are no permanent regulations for commercial unmanned aircraft systems, or drones. The vehicles are illegal to fly in the national air space without a Federal Aviation Administration permit called a Section 333 Exemption. The permit allows drones to fly commercially as long as they fly in daylight, no higher than 500 feet and within the operator's line of sight.
The delay in deploying regulations that have been discussed for more than five years is frustrating companies in Colorado, and elsewhere, that use drones for such diverse tasks as delivering packag-es, and surveying real estate, oil and gas wells and farm fields.
Congress told the FAA in 2012 to enact permanent rules on drone safety and manufacturing by Sept. 30, but the agency is only now reviewing comments on a draft submitted in March and is expected to miss the deadline.
Meanwhile, the FAA last week approved its 1,000th exemption, suggesting the lack of solid regulation could be stifling an industry ready to soar, says the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI.
"The number of applicants continues to greatly outpace approvals," an AUVSI report released last week says. "The flood of commercial exemption requests to the FAA shows that a mature UAS commercial market is waiting to be unleashed."
The FAA did not return repeated calls and e-mails requesting additional data.
Who owns the air?
In 1946, Thomas Causby sued the feds after a small municipal airport adjacent to his North Carolina chicken farm was converted to a military base. Noise from low-flying planes, he claimed, caused his hens to bash their heads against the walls of their coop until they died.
The Supreme Court ruled that the low-altitude flight path constituted takings and Causby was compensated for his losses. The case established air rights of property owners, resulting in the aforementioned FAA altitude rules.
Fast forward to 2015. Retail giant Amazon has proposed a delivery-by-drone service, new UAS uses are being discovered daily and hobby operators are causing trouble, as seen last month when drones shut down air attacks on a California wildfire.
In an attempt to expedite its Prime Air delivery service, Amazon has proposed a segregated and regulated drone airspace. Local drone traffic, like a real estate agent taking an aerial photo, could fly up to 200 feet. Faster, autonomous drones, like Prime Air, would operate at 200 to 400 feet. A buffer zone would exist from 400 to 500 feet. Crewed aircraft still would fly above 500 feet.
There's a big problem with this proposal, said Michael Braasch, avionics specialist at the University of Ohio, citing the Causby case. "There doesn't appear to be any conscious recognition of the landowners' usable space."
Also, for Amazon Prime Air to work, the drones would need to fly solo for long distances, equipped with yet-unproven technology allowing them to dodge collisions.
"Under current rules, they could only fly to the line of sight, barely down the street," AUVSI vice president of advocacy Tom McMahon said.
The economic impact of integrating commercial drones into the national air space could reach $1.4 billion in Colorado over the next decade and create more than 1,700 high-paying jobs, AUVSI estimates. The total U.S. economic impact will reach more than $82.1 billion by 2025.
This year, Colorado UAS manufacturing companies like Denver-based Geotech Environmental Equipment and UASUSA in Longmont employ 204 people and support an additional 397 jobs.
The industry's potential is limitless, UASUSA president and founder Skip Miller said. However, without rules, his hands are tied.
"When the Boulder floods happened, the FAA wouldn't let us fly, but I could have given totally valuable information," he said. "It's gotten off on the wrong foot with the military use, but that will change dramatically when people see the usefulness of this technology."
Miller created his first UAS, Tempest, for the University of Colorado's Vortex2 tornado research project.
Tempest still is UAS USA's primary craft, a workhorse with the ability to carry 15 pounds of gear. It's been used for projects by the University of Nebraska and the U.S. Naval Research Lab, and is planned as a tool to make humanitarian vaccine drops in Africa.
Public approval of drones ranges from 93 percent for firefighting to the low 40s for things like crowd monitoring and package delivery, according to a July 2014 survey by the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
"This is a big step for drones, because before that, people thought of drones only as 'not-nice aircraft' that could hurt you or spy on you," Miller said. "The public is not going to accept a lot of buzzing things around, but the public will accept me finding a lost hiker or helping firefighters."
The hope at Geotech is that public opinion will be swayed by the safety and environmental benefits of UAS. Geotech's projects include land surveys for oil and gas and viewing farm fields in spectrums not visible to the human eye.
"Looking at thermal prints, you can GPS locate and fix problems in the irrigation system, and farmers don't have to crop dust or spray an entire field. They can go back in with a drone and just treat that specific area," company president Jeff Popiel said. "For mine safety, to know if a headwall is swelling — so before the collapse of a wall, you can calculate if it's moved or not — that's huge."
It's imperative that regulation comes soon, Braasch said, particularly considering the increased number of hobby drones in the air.
"It's disturbing to think that we may have to have a case where a commercial aircraft ingests a hobby drone and has an emergency before some kind of action is taken," Braasch said. "Putting out a set of regulations that handles operations within line of sight is an excellent first step."
Laura Keeney: 303-954-1337, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/LauraKeeney
Photo Credit: Denver Post