Routine use of small drones by real estate agents, farmers, filmmakers and countless other commercial operators was cleared for takeoff by President Barack Obama’s administration Tuesday after years of struggling to write rules that would protect public safety and free the benefits of a new technology.
Brian Blessing, co-founder of Lafayette-based National UAS Solutions LLC, said the new regulations open things up a little but could use some tweaking.
Commercial operators won’t have to be licensed pilots. Instead, they can undergo training online and take a test to get a certificate. That’s a big change because operators currently have to have a manned aircraft pilot’s license.
However, Blessing said the regulations still could use some tweaking. For example, operators would have to keep drones within sight at all times and not fly over people or higher than 400 feet.
“What they did on line of sight, that hurts us a lot. We do some levee inspections, like down in St. Mary Parish and south Lafourche. They’re 60 miles long, and you can’t follow a drone in a car,” Blessing said.
The only way to keep a drone in view is by boat, and sometimes even that isn’t possible, he said. However, operators can fly the drones without keeping them in sight by proving to the Federal Aviation Administration the devices won’t fly over people, cars or houses. That still means applying for permission each time, he said.
Ryan Fuselier, operation leader of advanced technologies for surveying and mapping firm Fenstermaker, said the rules are a little more liberal than he anticipated.
The regulations appear to allow a person who isn’t FAA-certified to fly a drone as long as they are under the direct supervision of a certified drone operator, he said. It looks as if the FAA is saying one or two project managers or specialists in a company could hold the certificate but send pilots out to do the work, much the way a professional surveyor holds a license but sends surrogates out to do the work.
Fenstermaker is based in Lafayette, with locations in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Shreveport, Lake Charles, Houston and San Antonio.
The FAA announced the creation of a new category of aviation rules designed specifically for drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The long-anticipated rules mean commercial operators can fly drones without special permission.
Industry and government officials describe commercial drones as the biggest game-changing technology in aviation since the advent of the jet engine.
“This is a watershed moment in how advanced technology can improve lives,” said Brendan Schulman, a vice president at DJI, the world’s largest civilian drone-maker.
Until now, commercial operators have had to apply for a waiver from rules that govern manned aircraft, a process that can be time-consuming and expensive.
Since 2014, the FAA has granted more than 6,100 waivers, and another 7,600 are waiting for approval. Many more small companies have been using drones without FAA permission, industry officials say.
The new rules would provide an easier way for those businesses to operate legally.
The rules also would effectively lift the lid on flights by other potential operators who have held off using the technology — ranchers who want to count cattle, research scientists and companies that inspect infrastructure like bridges, oil platforms and smokestacks, to name a few.
Drone flights will be permitted only during the day and at twilight. Drone industry officials have long complained that restricting drone flights to daytime precluded a great many uses like some search and rescue operations, agricultural operations best done after dark and roof inspections of commercial building roofs that use heat sensors.
Operators still could seek waivers to restrictions like nighttime flights, flights beyond sight of the operator and flights over people.
The rules permit commercial transport of goods by drones for the first time, but line-of-sight restrictions on flights preclude delivery drones flying across cities and suburbs clasping small packages. Amazon and Google are working on drone delivery systems for goods purchased online.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency is researching how drone deliveries might safely be accomplished, but he declined to set a timetable for such rules.
Associated Press writer Joan Lowy and Advocate business writer Ted Griggs contributed to this report.