Once the exclusive tool of the military, drones are slowly making their way into civilian life. It’s becoming easier than ever for the average American to buy his or her own robotic eye in the sky.
The list of potential applications is nearly limitless. Drones could help utilities and energy companies monitor pipelines and offshore operations. The devices could be used to inspect buildings, give virtual tours of real estate and keep an eye on crop production.
But the rules governing drones are incredibly strict, especially for businesses. The Federal Aviation Administration generally does not allow drones to be put to commercial use, though some exemptions are available.
“A lot of the technology development is already here,” said attorney David Agee, who is co-leader of the law firm Husch Blackwell’s new practice group specializing in unmanned aircraft systems. “We’re just waiting for the regulations.”
What the Rules Say Now
If you’re a hobbyist, it’s generally OK to use a drone so long as it weighs less than 55 pounds and never flies higher than 400 feet from the ground. You also need to maintain visual contact with the drone, which must not interfere with air traffic, and it can only be for personal or recreational purposes.
Commercial use of drones, meanwhile, is prohibited without explicit permission from the FAA. Right now, getting the agency’s blessing is a time-consuming procedure.
Congress has instructed the FAA to set up a framework for allowing commercial drones in U.S. airspace by the end of 2015,but the agency has acknowledged it won’t meet that goal—2017 or 2018 is more likely.
“They are at least two years behind,”Agee said.
The FAA might introduce some rules this year covering smaller drones weighing less than 55 pounds, but it could take months for them to actually take effect.
2 Questions to Answer
There are two major concerns for businesses that are interested in using drones.
Do you have permission? // “You have to keep in mind that any commercial use is prohibited unless you have an exemption or a certificate of authorization,” Agee said.
International energy company BP was one of the very first commercial operations to receive a certificate from the FAA, but the process took several months. BP can only fly drones in the area near Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in the Arctic, where BP operates an oil field, and several other significant conditions are in force.
Based on the timeline for issuance of the first commercial certificates, any businesses interested in applying for a certificate for commercial use may face a process taking at least 12 months, Agee said, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to use a drone in a populated area.
Businesses can also appeal for an exemption under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. In late September, the FAA approved exemptions for six photo and video production companies, and is considering about 40 other requests. To win an exemption, companies need to demonstrate their drone use wouldn’t impact public safety, and that they will have proper support and processes.
Keep in mind, the FAA might not be the only agency you would need to deal with. Several state and local governments have passed rules limiting drone use to protect privacy and prevent trespassing.
You may have read about businesses that are already using drones for work. Unless those businesses have FAA approval, the owners could be tempting fate—and courting a financial penalty.
The FAA doesn’t have an enforcement wing for UAS cases or the extra budget to strictly police drone use, but if cases are brought to the agency’s attention, the FAA will likely request you cease and desist, and if you fail to do so, then they may levy fines and seek injunctive relief, Agee said.
Do you have insurance? // Business owners shouldn’t assume their existing coverage includes drone use, because it probably doesn’t, Agee said. If businesses don’t have insurance in place, they could face big problems should their drones crash into someone else’s building or take a photo that’s considered a privacy violation. Luckily, there are a few carriers who are starting to offer drone-specific coverage.
Cleared to Fly?
You might ask yourself if the benefits of unmanned aircraft are worth the headache.
Unmanned aircraft systems are experiencing an “exploding” level of availability, not that different from when cellphones started growing in popularity, Agee said. According to a report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, drones could generate $82.1 billion in economic growth between 2015 and 2025.
While many of the players in the UAS sector are large companies, there could be opportunities for smaller businesses, too, Agee said. After all, a lot of large companies would probably prefer to contract drone work out to a service provider that trains its own operators and knows the regulations inside and out.
“We think there’s a lot of potential,” Agee said. “We have some clients who are aggressively looking into this.”