Impending Regulations Leave Drone Manufacturers in Limbo

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to make an announcement by the end of November describing new regulations for commercial drone use.

by Shay Castle and Vince Winkel, Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo. / November 19, 2015
An Aerial MOB drone lands after filming a scene on the set of "Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders" on Sept. 9, 2015, in Santa Clarita, Calif. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

(TNS) — GeoVisual Analytics last week earned a major accolade: The Western Growers Association declared the Boulder data analysis firm the most promising innovator in the agricultural technology space.

But the growth potential of the business, at least in part, could hinge on factors largely out of the company's control.

GeoVisuals is one of several local businesses anxiously awaiting a Friday announcement from a Federal Aviation Administration task force on drones that will dictate whether they can be widely employed for commercial use.

"It will definitely help us" if the FAA loosens restrictions on commercial drones, said GeoVisual vice president of marketing Carl Kalin. "We process imagery (from drones), so the more drones there are, the more imagery will be processed."

Under current regulations, commercial use of drones is prohibited, with exemptions being granted on a case-by-case basis, a process that takes up to four months. More than 2,000 such exemptions have been awarded since September 2014.

In February, the FAA proposed new, less stringent rules that would allow for widespread registration of small, commercial drones — rules that, if adopted this week, would open up a myriad of business opportunities.

"If they can do it before June (2016), we've got a lot of growers who would love to have this before they plant in March or April," said Jason Barton of Boulder-based Agribotix, drone data collection and analysis firm. "Hopefully the FAA clears this up sooner rather than later."

Once the FAA clears it up, a lot of industries will have reason to celebrate.

On the horizon, drones will be deployed for firefighting, law enforcement, security, search and rescue, weather, underwater exploration, research and entertainment.

Those were the topics of discussion Tuesday night at the NewTech Longmont meeting on drones at the Longmont Museum in a packed auditorium.

"Drones used for aerial mapping and aerial inspections are being used more and more," said Olivier J. Brousse, founder and CEO of 3Dvistas, a Boulder company that designs, builds and flies autonomous drones for a variety of applications.

"I expect real time HD live re-transmission of aerial footage by drones, for news related organizations, to have a significant impact in the future. Drones used for humanitarian missions is also a promising application. Package delivery will be a significant application, but is still years away," Brousse said.

"From a technical point of view it can already be done now, but deploying such services on a large scale, reliably and safely within the national airspace will require considerable time," Brousse said.

Amazon already has a patented drone delivery system, and Google has said it plans to use drones to ship packages by 2017.

According to a 2013 report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the economic impact of drones flying commercially in the U.S. is expected to be about $13.6 billion in just a few years and more than five times that by 2025. It will also create tens of thousands of new jobs, the association said. The report also said that by 2025, total job creation is estimated at 103,776.

"Drones are the most exciting industry today. Despite legitimate concerns about safety and privacy, drones will affect every facet of your life," said Roger Glovsky of NewTech Longmont at Tuesday night's meeting. "Within the next decade there will be an explosion of drones used in the air, on land, and in the water, both publicly and privately."

Leading that charge are expected to be the agricultural applications.

Currently, 150 companies and individuals nationwide have been granted exemptions for agricultural use, according to filings with the FAA.

Karlin said many smaller businesses are operating under the radar, flying drones over their farms without an exemption, which are often too costly and too hard to come by to be feasible.

That's a risk larger operations can't afford to take, Barton said, noting that Agribotix is in talks with some big farms that are waiting out the FAA to begin using drones. That's a shame, he argues, because the perks of the technology go beyond cost savings and include increased yields.

"For a lot of us, the environmental benefits are the most important," said Barton. "We can help farmers use less pesticide, fertilizer and water.

"It delivers such value, it's a no-brainer."

©2015 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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