FAA Approves Commercial Drone Permits in Hawaii

Drone permits are being issued in Hawaii for a variety of purposes, from building inspections to rural research.

by William Cole, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser / September 8, 2015
(TNS) -- The Federal Aviation Administration has issued its first permits for commercial drones in Hawaii, with the unmanned flying apparatus going to work in the film industry, on tower inspections, in real estate sales and on aerial surveys.

The FAA said at least five Hawaii businesses have received approval since April. At least nine more have applications pending, including Hawaiian Electric Co., which wants to use the InstantEye Mk-2, a quadcopter with three cameras that weighs less than a pound, for everything from emergency repairs to accessing remote areas.

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply, meanwhile, has applied to use the DJI Inspire 1, also a quadcopter, over “rural” areas of Hawaii for the purpose of “conducting aerial acquisitions and research,” including infrastructure management, but also for search and rescue operations, the water company said.

Nationally the FAA began granting case-by-case approvals, known as Section 333 exemptions, starting July 24, 2014, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA Pacific Division.

The permits are an outgrowth of the FAA’s ongoing evaluation of more fully incorporating small unmanned aerial systems into the nation’s airspace. That review, in turn, followed an explosion in demand for the recreational and commercial use of relatively inexpensive drones that can deliver stunning bird’s-eye, high-definition views.

Drones Etc. sells the DJI Inspire 1 quadcopter, which can shoot 4K or ultra-high-definition video, in a bundle that includes dual operating systems and other equipment for $5,347.

The FAA has been playing catch-up with the technological trend.

The federal agency said that as of Wednesday, it had approved 1,439 commercial permits nationally, and is now approving about 50 a week with applications taking about 120 days or less for review.

Finally getting some approval to use the devices for business is good, but the issue of illegal use remains, say some industry experts and operators.

Adam Orens, president and lead pilot/operator for Hawaii AirVision LLC on Kauai, which received notice on April 2 that its commercial permit was granted, said the FAA “needs to go out and enforce the rules that they’ve put forth.”

The burgeoning drone industry has spawned a lot of illegal — meaning non-FAA-permitted — commercial flying, Orens said. A lot of weddings and advertisements for Hawaii-based businesses are shot by unpermitted drone operators, he said.

“There’s a ton of it going on,” Orens said. “It’s kind of difficult, because we’ve gone through the process to do it right, and it’s not that we expect to reap the benefits, but it would certainly be nice to not be underbid by people that really have no business being in the business.”

Orens has a pilot’s license. One of the requirements for the Section 333 exemption is having at least a recreational or sport pilot certificate, the FAA’s Gregor said. Orens said he also carries liability insurance.

“If you operate a UAS (unmanned aerial system) commercially without a Section 333 exemption, you are operating illegally,” Gregor said. “When we become aware of unauthorized operations, we generally try to educate the person about the rules. If, after we contact them, a person persists in operating a UAS commercially without the required authorization, or conducts an operation that endangers a manned aircraft or people or property on the ground, we can pursue enforcement action against them.”

The FAA has initiated more than 20 enforcement cases against drone operators and has settled five cases in which the operators paid civil penalties, he said.

Orens said since receiving his permit, he’s done drone filming for the movie industry, including a recently wrapped Zac Efron and Anna Kendrick movie on Oahu titled “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.”

The DJI S1000 octocopter he flies has a whopping price tag of between $15,000 and $20,000, with the high-definition downlink system costing about $1,900, airframe about $4,000 and batteries at $500 each, he said.

The FAA in February proposed a framework of regulations for incorporating small commercial unmanned aerial systems under 55 pounds into the airspace. These differ from recreational drones or remotely controlled planes, which are allowed with certain restrictions.

The commercial rules would limit flights to daylight and line-of-sight, and address height restrictions, operator certification, aircraft registration and operational limits. That process is expected to take up to two more years.

The Section 333 exemptions are being allocated on a case-by-case basis prior to finalization of the small UAS rules, the FAA said. Gregor said the exemptions are the first commercial drone-flying permits issued across the country, except for two commercial operations that were allowed in a remote part of the Arctic in 2013.

Last year, the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s Spatial Data and Visualization Lab received special FAA permission to fly a senseFly swinglet CAM drone to map the Puna lava flow on Hawaii island, a capability that was “extremely valuable,” Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oliveira said at the time.

The UH-Hilo lab is one of the Hawaii applicants for a Section 333 exemption and is seeking to fly three different drones “for compensation or hire” in the areas of scientific research, education and outreach, and emergency and disaster operations.

Darren Pai, a HECO spokesman, said drones “may potentially help us improve response times to emergency situations, inspect our electric facilities in remote areas that are otherwise difficult to access, reduce the use of manned helicopters, enhance overall employee and public safety, and locate the cause of power outages faster.”

Larry Osborn, an unmanned systems industry consultant and former member of the Hawaii Aerospace Advisory Committee, said the FAA has been slow to accommodate the explosive growth of drones. The United States lags behind other countries that have integrated drones.

“(The exemptions) are trickling through, but there are many, many operators who are doing so unlawfully, who have not requested an exemption,” he said.

The FAA said on its website that it has taken steps to streamline the exemption process, which provides operators pursuing legal entry “a competitive advantage in the UAS marketplace, thus discouraging illegal operations and improving safety.”

“It is anticipated that this activity will result in significant economic benefits, and the FAA administrator has identified this as a high-priority project to address demand for civil operations of UAS for commercial purposes,” the FAA said.

©2015 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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