Drone rules may be a boon to local industry

The small drone industry could get a boost with the Federal Aviation Administration’s long-awaited proposed rules on how, where and under what conditions they can fly commercially, local business and education leaders said Monday.

Drone manufacturers and potential business users have lobbied and waited years to find out what rules the FAA would put in place to allow everything from inspecting pipelines to scouting real estate locations.

“What the FAA has handed down in terms of rules is very practical and very achievable,” said Frank Beafore, executive director of unmanned aircraft-maker SelectTech Geospatial in Springfield.

The proposed rules released Sunday would require operators to be certified, and fly drones within line of sight and during the day. The drones would be restricted to below 500 feet in altitude and speeds of less than 100 miles per hour. The regulations might not take effect for another two years or more as the federal agency listens to what the public has to say.

State leaders have identified the emerging industry as among the most important to create jobs in future years. It could employ 2,700 workers in Ohio by 2025, according to a trade association report.

The Dayton Development Coalition has been among the economic development organizations touting unmanned aerial vehicles as a new and promising industry for jobs in Southwest Ohio.

“The bottom line is it’s encouraging that (FAA officials) have come out with some rules and the rules appear to be reasonable so far, but again I would like to receive some input from some of the companies actually flying these,” said Maurice McDonald, coalition executive vice president of aerospace and defense.

Drones have raised concerns about safety and privacy.

President Barack Obama issued a memorandum Sunday to federal agencies to guard against abuse of data collected by drones, including a 180-day limit on keeping personally identifiable information with some exceptions, the Associated Press reported.

Drone users and advocates must build confidence with the public that the machines can be flown safely, McDonald said.

The possible regulations are a good first step to realizing the benefits of drone technology, said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, in a statement.

“This proposed rule is a critical milestone in the UAS integration process, and one that is long overdue,” he said. “UAS technology has largely remained grounded while many prospective users wait for the regulatory framework to catch up.”

‘Going to be big’

The region is in a good position to attract investment and develop new companies because of the area’s background in aviation and manufacturing, Beafore said. Along with agriculture, his company is working with a customer who might use drones to inspect power lines.

“It’s going to be big everywhere and it’s going to be exceptionally good for the greater Dayton region because we have a lot of the technical pieces of the puzzle already in place,” he said.

Clark County is expected to play a significant role in Ohio’s drone industry. Clark State Community College has a precision agriculture program and the Ohio/Indiana UAS Test Center in Springfield supports universities and government agencies research, and economic development and commercialization of the technology.

In Dayton the FAA gave mapping and surveying firm Woolpert Inc. approval in December to be one of the first companies in the nation to fly drones commercially.

Businesses that operate drones will largely regulate themselves, Beafore said, because the companies would be liable for any accidents or destruction of property. Recreational hobbyists must follow other existing rules, and the FAA might in the future issue rules on so-called micro-drones, or those weighing less than five pounds.

One of the places with a big stake in the new rules is Sinclair Community College, which has worked to be a national leader in training an unmanned aerial systems workforce.

Andrew Shepherd, Sinclair director of the UAS program, called the FAA rules “a good balance between safety and being open to the market” to get the industry off the ground.

Deborah Norris, Sinclair vice president of workforce development and corporate services, said while the FAA move was important to integrate drones into the national airspace, the college will continue to seek approval to fly more drones to train students and partner in research with corporate clients.

A less stringent certification process — rather than a pilot’s license — will open the field to more people to fly drones commercially, Shepherd said.

A ‘sigh of relief’

The rules as proposed are a big win for both Clark State and the Miami Valley, said Aimee Belanger-Haas, interim dean of business and applied technology at Clark State. The community college uses drones in a new precision agriculture program.

Students learn to analyze data the unmanned aircraft collect over farm fields, ranging from the amount of moisture in the soil to pests that might be damaging crops.

The rules are flexible enough that they would allow almost any farmer or consultant to fly the drones as long as they have the proper certification.

Although the public has a say in the rule-making, Beafore said they make sense for likely uses locally, including precision agriculture. For example, the rules set a maximum altitude of 500 feet, and require an observer to keep the aircraft in sight at all times.

“When you’re up at a higher altitude, you need a more powerful camera,” he said. “If you can skim the top of corn at say, 15 feet, I’m getting a much better sensor image.”

The Richmond, Ind., Police Department will launch a small drone in the months ahead if the FAA grants approval, Police Chief Kris J. Wolski said.

“We started realizing it would not only benefit us from traffic accidents but maybe outdoor crime scenes where the incident is spread out over a larger area,” he said.

The department, which spent $1,800 on the quad-copter, would follow federal laws on privacy and warrantless searches, he said.

The proposed rules were “a sigh of relief” to Dayton photographer Andrew J. Snow, 64, because it won’t require a pilot’s license. Snow has a drone photography exhibit at Sinclair Community College.

“I look forward to expanding my business with the use of these devices because it’s a huge opportunity,” he said. “It provides us with new perspectives that you can’t get any other way.”

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